Coinciding in the same space

Kiki Smith with Leonard Schwartz on Cross Cultural Poetics in 2011

Courtesy Kiki Smith Studio, 2011.
Courtesy Kiki Smith Studio, 2011.

Editorial note: Kiki Smith (b. 1954) is an artist, sculptor, and printmaker. Her work can be seen or has been shown in countless museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. An exhibition of her work Prints, Books and Things, ran at the New York MoMA from December 5, 2003 to March 8, 2004, and was followed by an interactive website. The following conversation focuses on Smith’s collaboration with poet Leslie Scalapino, The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water (2010). A digital facsimile of the book is available from Reed Digital Collections. The show originally aired on KAOS 89.3 FM as part of Cross Cultural Poetics on February 6, 2011. The following was transcribed by Michael Nardone. You can listen to the full recording of the program at PennSound here. We would like to thank Kiki Smith and The Pace Gallery for permission to publish this interview. — Katie L. Price

Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest, on the phone from New York, is Kiki Smith. She is an internationally known artist working in multiple mediums. About her work, it has been written, “Smith represents the female body as one of resistance and transgression. Her women reject the graceful refined poses of Western statuary, and startle by performing extremely private acts in a remarkably public and matter of fact manner.” The work of Kiki Smith’s I’d like to talk about today is a collaboration she’s done with the poet Leslie Scalapino: The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, published by Granary Books in an edition of forty or forty-five copies. We have one copy here at the Evergreen State College in our rare books room. Welcome, Kiki Smith.

Kiki Smith: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Schwartz: Wonderful to have you on the line. I know you’re a busy person and working on many projects all at once. Can you say a little bit about your collaboration with the poet Leslie Scalapino?

Smith: Sure. Leslie had asked me to write her — I don’t know what you call those — a blurb?

Schwartz: A blurb, sure.

Smith: For the back of a book that she made, also with Granary Press, and I did. At that time, I didn’t know she was friends with my friend Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and I didn’t know her work particularly well, although I had heard her read. I’m not somebody who writes blurbs. I don’t know much about things like that, but I did it nonetheless. Then thinking about it, I wrote that I really liked her work. I think she suggested to me then that we could make something together. I didn’t have any idea particularly what to do. I made some very strange drawings, and then I thought she could make something that went with them. We tried to think of who could publish it, and that took a while. We asked Granary, and they weren’t interested in doing it at the time because they had other commitments. So, we didn’t really know where to go with it, but we sort of made it nonetheless. Leslie also rewrote and reworked it, and then eventually Granary Press came back to me, just by chance, and asked if we would like to do it. They were ready, I guess. We said, “Yes, we would love to,” and then we started working on it.

Schwartz: There was a period in the past — I associate it with the heyday of the New York School — in which poets and painters worked together collaboratively in really exciting ways more often. That’s rarer these days, and you are an artist who has worked with poets. You mentioned Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and now Leslie Scalapino. Let me first just say, the book is extraordinary. It includes digital prints of your images, each individually hand-colored by you, Kiki Smith. The book is accordion-bound in Ultrasuede, a pleasure to the touch. There are forty-five copies. Each one of those copies is very expensive. It’s very much an art object or a book art project, as well, to which one makes pilgrimage in order to find a copy and read the book, or to read the book and look at the book. Can you say, though, a little bit about the relationship between word and image for you in this book?

Smith: I periodically like to use words in relationship to my work. Probably because, historically, how language and image go together is very interesting. It has a rich history pre-book: in painting, and then in stone. Like the Sumerians or the Egyptians, where it’s pictorial and language at the same time, or like altar paintings of the saints with words coming out of their mouths, or Nancy Spiro’s work. She’s worked very extensively with text. Before that, when I was younger, I mostly worked with my own text. Since I met Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, we’ve made maybe four projects together. And I’ve worked with Leslie and Anne Waldman a little bit, and different people. Henri Cole and I made a broadside together. For me, it’s just a pleasure. I’ve also made several books with Lynne Tillman, who’s more a fiction writer. But it’s interesting because it can’t be illustration. You can’t make something that is an illustration of something, because then it’s just working for somebody else, which I’m not that into. Each one that I’ve done, for the most part, has really been a collaboration, and sometimes it comes just from talking. Mei-mei and I just talked for a long time, and then we did things simultaneous to one another. With Leslie, I actually made the work first, you know, in a certain way. She wasn’t making an illustration either; she made something that could couple it, that could coincide in the same space. In certain ways they go together, and in other ways they move apart from one another, or are antithetical to one another’s meaning. I like that it’s not a one-to-one correlation. It’s just possibility.

Schwartz: That’s really intriguing. I do understand that the risk or the threat is that something becomes illustrative — that the image becomes illustrative of the poem, or the poem …

Smith: Which also has a great history. You know, it has to work, even if very superficially. Mei-mei will make poems and I just use all the animals she mentions in the poems, or all the different kinds of natural phenomenon. I’ll just make images of those. In that way it’s maybe closer [to illustration], but it’s just whatever is pleasurable, and also — in terms of printmaking or technically working with paper masters or master printmakers — what’s interesting. How to push that: your use of and the form of a book.

Schwartz: You do mention that your sequence of forty-three drawings had been, I think, completed beforehand, and it’s titled Women Being Eaten by Animals. About those drawings, Scalapino writes, “I wrote the poem using the sense of an unalterable past occurrence: One female, apparently the same girl, is repeatedly, in very similar images as variations, bitten and clawed by a leopard-like, lion-like animal. Both person and animal have abstracted features, giving the impression of innocence or opaqueness. As in a dream of similar actions or a dream of a single, timeless action, the girl flecked with blood while being unaltered by the animal’s touch, there is no representation of motion except stillness of the figures floating in space of page. Neither the girl nor the animal articulate expression, as if phenomena of feeling(s) do not exist.” Kiki, we are on radio and we can’t show the images, so I’ve read this text on your images. Is there anything you can say about the extraordinarily sensual and extraordinarily disturbing quality of the woman being eaten by animals?

Smith: I was asked by the Museum of Modern Art, by Wendy Whiteman, if I wanted to make an exhibition of my prints, probably a little less than ten years ago. I wanted a hook for it because it was Queens. She asked me if I wanted to make a billboard, which never happened, but I immediately thought of Rousseau’s — I think it’s a lion or leopard attacking the white antelope [Henri Rousseau’s The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope] — and it has the same trajectory of those animals. There is a central animal and they are in some big jungle, and then the other one comes lunging into it. So, I thought about that: that most animals are actually eaten. They leave the planet being eaten alive. I had to think about that for a while, unpleasantly. But then I also thought that, for me, it was more how you get out of your body. How you get out of your own ego-consciousness. What penetrates and what is penetrant to you, and what gives you freedom at the same time? I think about animals a lot in very convoluted ways, but part of it is this sort of shamanistic space of people either acting as animals, or making associative attributes to animals, or anthropomorphizing animals. It moves around. But it’s just my own convoluted entertainment of how to escape “me,” or something like that. It’s not unpleasant any of it. It’s also [this idea that we are] not to be separate from the rest of the universe, that we have this idea of autonomy, but really we’re a part of a whole.

Schwartz: I certainly was moved by that aspect of the work: the absence of privileging the human over the animal, that there is a kind of offering being made. I also thought of certain images from early Buddhist tradition — I think it may be Indian Buddhism, but it may be elsewhere as well — that illustrate the story of the Buddha offering himself to the starving tiger to be eaten. I know your work tends to get associated with a certain kind of relationship to Catholic spirituality, but I kept thinking of that image of the Buddha’s offering of himself to the tiger.

Smith: That’s interesting. My mother was a Catholic. She converted to Catholicism from some other religion, but then she converted to, or rather, practiced Hinduism and Buddhism. So, I think it’s true to say that I grew up in a mixed household. And anyone, from the sixties anyway, is influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and many other religions just by the nature of growing up in the sixties, which I did. Because, you know, the East … For the last hundred years in art and in philosophy, but very directly in art, Hinduism and different parts of Buddhism, certainly Zen Buddhism, were a very big influence. I’m very interested in the iconography of religions, much more than I’m actually interested in belief systems. I feel like being Catholic was enough for me for one lifetime. But I love the iconographies that are associated with belief systems. I find that one can be playful in those histories also.

Schwartz: Absolutely. I just spoke with Ibrahim Muhawi — who is a translator of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet — about the difference between metaphor and symbol. Symbol has to do with identification, he argued, in locking us into a body, or locking us into a particular tradition; whereas metaphor opens things up, retains a relationship to a thing to be sure, but also opens it up to multiple possibilities. Also, of course, Leslie Scalapino as a poet is very influenced by Zen Buddhism as a practicing Buddhist.

Smith: She was a really fascinating person, someone who was very abstract in her thinking. But I think the thing that I liked about — more when you listen to her, if you let it go inside of you — I always thought it was a little like standing behind thought. Like you’re standing behind thought, just observing it. And it goes into you, in a way that you don’t have to be analytic. You can, but you don’t have to [in order] to get it. The words penetrate you and then make a consciousness inside of you. I mean, she has an enormous breadth of work. She had dynamic energy for her work and for many other artists’ work, and supported other artists: artists and writers both.

Schwartz: Sure, theater as well. I think dance groups have been involved as well.

Smith: Yes, dance. I recently saw her piece with Fiona Templeton.

Schwartz: Kiki, can I read a short passage from the poem?

Smith: Sure.

Schwartz: This is from Kiki Smith and Leslie Scalapino’s The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water.

[Reads from The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water.]

So, that was Leslie Scalapino from her collaboration with Kiki Smith, The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water, published by Granary Books. That last line I stopped at, “hierarchy is incomprehensible,” also really speaks, to me, to the relationship between the two forms: your drawing of the female form and the animal form. Kiki, can I ask you, do you have other specifically poetry and art collaborations that you are working on currently?

Smith: Uh … I don’t know. I can’t remember! [Laughter.] I’m trying to make stained glass windows with songs, with words from songs. It’s something I’ve wanted to make for about ten years, so I finally decided to make it now. It’s with a song called “Tramp on the Street,” which was written in the late 1800s. I’m always, in my fantasy life, making chapels, which I make and don’t belong anywhere. No one seems to have the slightest interest in them, but I need to make them. I feel very passionate about making them, so I’m going off to Germany for the next month to paint some more. And besides that, I don’t know. The only thing I did want to say is that “the animal is in the world like water in water” is from George Bataille, and I think it’s from Theory of Religion. I’m trying to plod my way through reading that, which is not easy.


Schwartz: Thank you for mentioning that because I did note that “the animal is in the world like water in water” is a quote from Bataille. And I did think about the collaborations between George Bataille and Hans Bellmer, their edition of The Story of the Eye.

Smith: Yes, yes.

Schwartz: Do you know Bellmer’s poupées, those dolls, those infinitely flexible female forms with a certain kind of violence towards the form built into them? Do you have a view or interest in Bellmer?

Smith: When I was young I hated them. I thought that this was really terrible, and as I got older I loved them. I absolutely love them. I had a short show at the ICP, the International Center of Photography in New York, and one of the big hooks for me was that there was an extensive Bellmer show downstairs in the basement exhibition space, and I had the upstairs. It was just heaven for me to see it. Mine is like a super soft version. But mine is … it’s not transgressive, but a more open possibility of being in a body. Obviously both have their own weird sexual connotations. He was really deep in it. This transgressive aspect of being in a body, maybe there is some relationship to Catholicism in that because it’s caught in the body, the dilemmas of being in a body. I don’t know. But I’m crazy about his work. His etchings, his photographs, his coloring, hand-coloring the photographs, setting up props, making sculpture and then using it as an object for photography, or as an object to be acted on in a theatrical way or something. There are just a million interesting ways to think about it.

Schwartz: It’s really intriguing to hear you talk about Bellmer. It also makes me think of another artist of that period, André Masson, and of a particular story he tells of being left for dead on the battlefield in World War I with his chest blown open, and no longer being able to tell the difference between where his chest leaves off and the sky begins as he looks up. And then wanting to spend the rest of his life trying to paint that powerful color that he saw when he couldn’t tell the difference any longer between his body and the sky.

Smith: Well, I think that’s what George Bataille is talking about too: the pre-ego-conscious space of being not-separate in the world. But also, I studied to be an emergency medical technician, and we had to work in the emergency room and someone had a big knife wound, and I realized that I couldn’t have cared less that my purpose was to stitch him up. All I thought was, “Wow, isn’t that great, the outsides and the insides at the same time!” [Laughter.] So I thought I wasn’t suited for a medical career.

Schwartz: Right, right, you’re no longer in the field. No one can call in and try and sue you for enjoying it aesthetically.

Smith: I guess because it gave me something to think about. Yes, that space between here and there.

Schwartz: That’s really powerful, Kiki. How great to hear your thoughts on Bellmer and Bataille, as well as on Scalapino and the book you’ve just completed. Let me just mention that there are forty-five copies of The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water. One of those copies exists at the Evergreen State College’s rare books room. Please come by the college and the library to look at it on the premises. And Kiki Smith, thank you so much for coming to the phone and talking with me.

Smith: Thank you. Thank you. It’s my pleasure to talk to you. I also want to say that Leslie was an extraordinary person. For me, it was a great honor to work with her.

Schwartz: We all miss her terribly, and it’s great to have this work of hers available to us.

Smith: It is wonderful.

© Kiki Smith, courtesy the Pace Gallery.

Any possible way of making words

Ted Berrigan with Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson on 'In the American Tree,' 1978

Editorial note: Ted Berrigan (1934–1983) was the author of several books of poetry, including The Sonnets (1964), Nothing for You (1978), Easter Monday (1978), and A Certain Slant of Sunlight (1988). He also wrote a novel, Clear the Range (1977). His poems were collected in The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan by University of California Press in 2005. This interview was originally broadcast on Berkeley’s KPFA-FM on August 11, 1978, as part of In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets, hosted by Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson. Listen to the program at PennSound here. The interview was transcribed by Michael Nardone. — Katie L. Price

Lyn Hejinian: This is In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets. I’m Lyn Hejinian and with me tonight is my cohost Kit Robinson, and a very special guest. Kit, why don’t you introduce.

Kit Robinson: It’s my extreme pleasure to introduce tonight, which is actually this morning, Ted Berrigan, who has arrived from New York, and is going to read for us.

Ted Berrigan: I’ll read some recent poems to start the show off. This is a poem called “Whitman in Black” and it’s from a new book, which I just finished, of fifty poems. It’s called Easter Monday.

[Reads “Whitman in Black.” MP3]

And now I’ll read one that’s maybe a couple of years older, but not so dissimilar from that. This poem, in its title … well, the title contains my entire sense of what it’s like to live now: in this century, in this time, in the United States of America. Or maybe anywhere else for that matter. It’s called “Buddha on the Bounty.” The Bounty being the ship, His Majesty’s ship, the Bounty from “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

[Reads “Buddha on the Bounty.” MP3]

And I’ll read this poem, which actually you requested me to read, Kit, called “Here I Live.” It’s from my book Nothing for You, which was published earlier this year by Angel Hair Books in Lenox, Massachusetts. I wrote this poem, I think I wrote it in maybe 1969. I wrote it by a method. In fact, I write everything by a method, but I wrote this by a method in quotes. It’s called “Here I Live.”

[Reads “Here I Live.” MP3]

Robinson: The counting thing is like, I mean, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do in a poem, except that you’re actually counting. When you say “one,” “two” and “three,” you know, the syllables have a certain duration and a certain rhythm. You’ve done that in other work too, right? You’ve got that thing when you count, right, with the numbers?

Berrigan: What other work?

Robinson: Actually, in The Sonnets, there’s a point when you say “one, two, three, four,” right?

Berrigan: I don’t remember. But I’m sure I have done that before because it’s something I do, in fact.

Well, in this poem, the person talking is named “I,” and that’s really all the name you are given for the person talking. There was a need to give some definition to that character. The clearest definition I could think to give in the state — the psychophysiological state that that person was in when saying these things — was to show that that person was made up of, constituted, a nexus of parts named one, two, three, and four. I mean it could have been named I, you, he, and it. It’s pronouns broken down to a more —

Robinson: So there are planes, so that it’s like an x-axis, a y-axis —

Berrigan: There are planes, yeah.

Robinson: And then there’s a time axis —

Berrigan: You just mentioned the secret actually of my entire poetry, which is that it has to do with planes: of reality, of perception … Not of reality, because that sounds theoretical, but with planes of being, not in a theoretical sense but in a sense of trying to get accurate. I am talking to you, but he is thinking about it while I am talking. You know?

Robinson: And “they”: they said something about this, too. And other peoples’ voices come into your work.

Berrigan: “They” are over there, though, and “I” is here. And “he” is a little bit over there but is near.

Robinson: So there’s an incredible sense of location. Like when you say three hundred and sixty degrees, you get a center.

Berrigan: Right.

Robinson: And you get a circumference, and a point at the center.

Berrigan: There’s something feminine if you can actually get three hundred and sixty degrees. I didn’t realize, I suppose, until a few months ago that you could have planes and still have a circle, which is a really nice idea.

Hejinian: Right.

Berrigan: All that sounds so abstract, but it’s not abstract when I’m doing it. It’s simply trying to have something exist without describing it: to name its parts rather than describe it. Description is slow. I can’t keep up to the pace of my metabolism when I am using description usually, but I can do it while simply naming things. You know I don’t use images much but I will name an image. I mean, I will say “a tree.” I don’t try to make a picture of a tree for you. I assume —

Hejinian: What about in your novel, in Clear the Range?

Berrigan: What about it? I mean, that’s another story entirely. I mean, that’s a poet’s novel. I wrote it as this poem, was writing it … It’s a genre work, a genre which I was thoroughly familiar with: the Western novel. And I used the genre then to make everything be very slow and to make this setting in which there was a hero and a villain — almost like Commedia dell’arte. Then there was a girl. And then there were various other characters, including a horse and a mule. But, I mean, the main thing that was going on was that the villain and the hero were constantly having these Western confrontations, in which they didn’t finally pull out their guns and shoot each other. And they were very similar sort of, except that the villain was obviously villainous, and the hero was obviously the hero. Anytime one of them did anything like go into a restaurant or a bar, then the other one was a waiter or the bartender, and they had these confrontations every minute. I think I thought I was making something similar to Camus’s book The Stranger, in which the guy, Meursault, the hero, walks around and becomes totally bemused by the sun smashing on his brain every minute and in the end, it seems, he killed somebody. He doesn’t quite remember, or he does remember but he doesn’t know why he did it or any thing in particular, but he did it for a very good reason: it’s too hot.

Robinson: So how does logic or narrative get you to that? Like “too hot” you know? Like you got to move, right? In this poem —

Berrigan: Wait a minute. You’ll have to explain this question. What is that?

Robinson: Well, like, okay, so you’ve got a narrative in Clear the Range.

Berrigan: Yeah, but it’s a given. The narrative path is given by a genre, whereas in poems it’s not. Or maybe it is, but in a different way.

Robinson: Right. But it seems like in this poem, “Here I Live,” what does that is not narrative but it is some kind of sense of logic, you know. In the end you say, “And so. One. Two. Three,” like that follows.

Berrigan: What does it say? It says —

Robinson: Does it?

Berrigan: No, it doesn’t. But it practically does.

Robinson: Well, okay —

Berrigan: My sense, I suppose, quite often when I am writing poems, is that I’m going to tell a story. So, in that sense, it is kind of narrative. It is narrative in the kind of sense that it’s telling, but I don’t really want to tell. I don’t want to be this teller. I don’t mind being a teller of tales in which you make a story. I’m making something, but I’m also telling. So, I start out to tell a story, and I have this structure of the story, but I’m not very interested in the story, but rather in the feelings involved. And so I take out as much of the plot as possible. I mean I just leave out as much of the plot as possible. I don’t even consider most of the plot. I simply put in the complete structure —

Robinson: You’ve got scaffolding —

Berrigan: Yeah, scaffolding, sure, the architecture of the story. And then I leave out, and put in the things that are necessary. In that sense it’s a kind of impressionism, but it’s not an impressionism of making pictures of impressions, but of using words to get details, because I’m mostly involved with rhythm, tempo, pace, color, and so on in order to get the feeling that’s being involved. And yet, pure feeling is not enough. You need to have some sense of what kind of person is talking in this poem. And I do try and give you that. Not the person that I think I might be all the time, but the person that is talking in that poem. And there you have it. I mean, I give you a story, but I don’t want —

Robinson: But the poem is there —

Berrigan: I’m not interested in telling you —

The poem needs to exist very much like a tree.

Hejinian: We’re going to continue on now with our guest Ted Berrigan. This is In the American Tree: New Writing by Poets. Ted, you have a sequence of things?

Berrigan: Yeah, I’ll read three poems from a book, which I just completed three or four months ago. It’s called Easter Monday, and it’s fifty poems. Most of them are close to the same size, my favorite size, which is about fourteen lines. Well, they are sonnets, in fact, but they don’t really work at that too much. Not all of them are. Some are longer and none are shorter. But some are quite long, quite a bit longer, because they just got longer sometimes, and when they did I just let them be longer. Fifty was an arbitrary number I decided upon ahead of time based on a theory that if you do two or three works that are fairly similar, and you liked them — even if you just do one, you do one work and you like it and can do another one that’s similar to it — there’s no particular reason to do the next one, a second one, and there’s no particular reason not to do it. But if you feel you have a number of them there, you can set yourself this arbitrary number and just decide, well, I’ll do fifty of these. Then you’re sort of clear as to what you’ll be doing for a while. I got that idea from a painter friend of mine. So, I did fifty of these, and it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I said that I would do fifty. It’s called Easter Monday because it’s really about a second life: life beginning about the age of forty. And since it is personal … I mean it is the second half of one’s life. It’s about being young, a young older person. I was involved in a second marriage, second family, but even if I hadn’t been, it still could have been the same thing. Consequently, it is like Easter Monday. Easter Friday you die and Easter Sunday you rise again from the dead, and that’s really glorious and wonderful, but then Easter Monday you have to get this job and support yourself for the rest of your life. [Laughter.] The poems were all written two or three or four years from the time I was thirty-eight until last year when I was forty-two. So they are not all about one’s whole second life, but rather about being aware of coming into that. When I say they are about something, I strictly mean “about.” I don’t know what each poem is about particularly. I could study them and tell you what each one is about, but that’s not what I’m willing to do. Each poem is a very separate poem. They are not like my work, The Sonnets, where, although every poem can stand on its own, they were sequential and serial in a certain way. There is some repetition of things, but it’s really like fifty separate works which were done knowing I was going to do fifty, and therefore they relate that way. I knew what the themes were, though I didn’t work at them too hard. I just knew what they were. I’ll read the first three. The first one is called “Chicago Morning.” It’s dedicated to the painter Phil Guston simply because I was looking at a painting of his while I was writing. It was hanging on the wall over the typewriter, and so I actually used some things in his painting to refer to when I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

[Reads “Chicago Morning.” MP3]

The second one is called “New Town.” New Town is a section of Chicago.

[Reads “New Town.” MP3 ]

“The End,” this is the third one. And these are the first three, actually, that were written. And it was after writing these three that I then decided I would go on and write forty-seven more. Which is why I call this “The End” because I, you know, I wanted to get the end out of the way right away.

[Reads “The End.” MP3]

I’m going to read one more of those since my voice started to click in about the middle of the third one. This is one that came later, maybe about the thirtieth one. This is a made work, and it was made from a master list in a psychology textbook. The title of it is “From a List of Delusions of the Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” And this is a fairly classical sonnet of fourteen lines, which works, in fact, in three fours and a two.

[Reads “From a List of Delusions of the Insane, What They Are Afraid Of.” MP3]

Hejinian: What a list!

Berrigan: Yeah, well, the children are burning. And we are those children. And they are those children too. And they are not insane. All those things are very true. I mean, evil chemicals are in the air.

Hejinian: And they are poor.

Berrigan: And we are in the control of another power. We have stolen something, namely those lines. [Laughter.] I mean, one has to be as witty as one can in the face of the Holocaust.

Hejinian: You mentioned earlier on one of the earlier poems in the first part of this show about montage.

Berrigan: No, Kit mentioned it. I don’t use such highfalutin words.


Hejinian: Does collage or montage technique come into your work at all, consciously? I mean, is that one of the methods that you use?

Berrigan: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, I use any possible way of making words. And I don’t remember it too much now. I mean, I just do what it is I do. When I was doing things early on and learning how to make poems my way, I was very heavily influenced by paintings, and by music as well, but to talk just about one thing … On one level, I was tremendously influenced by Cubism, basically because I see flat anyway, and I am interested in planes. When I first saw Cubist paintings, it seemed to me they made great sense. I’m sure that was a misunderstanding in many ways, but they made great sense to me. And then I followed that immediately into the use of collage, and the idea of making assemblages, all sorts of things like that. Sure, I’ll use any material from anywhere, and I like to do it. And I will; I’ll make works like that one that I just read which is made entirely of material, selected material, from one particular source. Sometimes I collect material. I write it down in notebooks when I’m reading. I like to read. I read all the time, all sorts of things. If something strikes me by how it sounds, if it sounds like something that I actually might have thought if I were thinking that way in those very words, I might copy it in a notebook. Then I’ll use it later in some poem because sometimes when I’m making poems, I just thumb through my notebooks and put in anything that seems appropriate to what I’ve already put in. Of course, I don’t credit the sources. Why should I? Those that recognize them will see where it comes from, and get some added sensual brain cell pleasure from noticing it, and those that don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway. I mean, I don’t mind if I don’t make up all my own words. Yeah, I use all sorts of techniques like that. I read in a book once that someone said — it would be nice if it were Whitehead that said it — but it was someone like that who said, “No great art without great theories.” And I believed it. So I have great theories, and I can’t entirely remember what they are. But I remember when I conceived them initially, and I still go by them, even if I don’t remember the theories too well. I have millions of theories that have to do with rules for writing, ways to write and ways to make things. For example, that poem that I read called “Cranston, Near the City Line,” part of the method that I used, the rules I used governing it when I wrote it, had to do with some of the ideas that Kenneth Koch used teaching poetry writing to old people in nursing homes.

Hejinian: Oh, that wonderful book that he has.

Berrigan: It was something like six ideas that he used, and I tried to see somehow if I could use all six in one poem without having it be a poem by an old person. I didn’t want to go to a nursing home and do it.

Hejinian: Or by Kenneth Koch.

Berrigan: Yeah, well, I don’t have to worry about writing poems by Kenneth Koch, because he’s a Harvard educated guy. Kenneth is a wonderful poet, but, as Ron Padgett said, poets like Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, they’re too clean actually. Those guys are very clean. I mean, that’s not a criticism, it’s just a joke.

Robinson: I wanted to ask you about rhyme. I noticed a few rhymes in your poems, but I sort of have a sense that there were even rhymes there that I didn’t hear because —

Berrigan: I’m sure there were —

Robinson: Because there were delayed rhymes. Like in the first one that you read, you’re talking about hearing other peoples’ voices, then you say “the soup.” And my take on that was that the soup was like alphabet soup or something.

Berrigan: That take is included in the word.

Robinson: Right.

Berrigan: I mean, I’m not as imaginative as that, but once I will think of a word. Then I can see how that can work. That’s actually the way everything looked out the window in Chicago in the morning.

Robinson: The soup, right. The air … And then you get to the Loop, like it was a really long-delayed rhyme, like four lines later —

Berrigan: I’m glad you pointed that out.

Robinson: But it was a stretch. And the same thing happened from the title to the last line, because the title is “Chicago” and the last line is “Europe at night,” which is almost like a negative or something, you know. So, when you’re writing, do you have a sense that you’re holding something in your short-term memory that you’re going to turn around, but you don’t want to do it yet?

Berrigan: Yeah, that’s a really accurate way of putting it, I think. I love rhyme and I love even just mental rhyme. Every kind of rhyme, I love it. One of my most favorite poems is “Annabel Lee.” I also like Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper.” I like rhyme a lot and I feel that, in the way that one actually says one’s words now, that there is room everywhere for rhyme. That is, when you think of a poem like “Annabel Lee,” written in measure, I mean, written in a really strict measure, and you think of it as how your learned it in school in the sixth grade, seventh grade, whatever, and there are lines that say: “I was a child and she was a child, / in our kingdom by the sea: / but we loved with a love that was more than love — / me and my Annabel Lee.” That sounds. That’s music. But, in fact, if you think of how you would say it if you were saying that, you know, if you were telling somebody that, and it was this quite significant story, and you would say actually: “I was a child and she was a child in our kingdom by the sea, but we loved with a love that was more than love, me and my Annabel Lee.”

Robinson: It’s like the difficulty of actually saying that —

Berrigan: It’s the movement of stress, right. When you put the stress of the emotion on it, rather than the stress of the measure, then you have two beats, two measures going at once, two kinds of melody. That’s actually what I do. That’s where I’m avant-garde. I believe that you can have two melodies simultaneously. I don’t measure. I don’t use —

Robinson: But you get a modulation that you can feel.

Berrigan: Yeah. Clark Coolidge said to me once that I loved old-fashioned music, and you can see it in my works. And he meant it as a compliment, because what I do is take it out of the heart of the matter, and put it all on the surface. It’s kind of like putting the skeleton on the outside in some ways.

Robinson: That’s a very strict formalism in a way.

Berrigan: Yeah, it’s like if you could consider that de Kooning and Vermeer are doing the same thing, then you have a sense of what it is I would like to do.

Robinson: Right, landscape and the body.

Berrigan: It’s just that formalism, that kind of formalism. I’m strictly a formalist. I mean, if I think of a phrase and I have a feeling to write, and then if I don’t have a formal idea, I couldn’t even write. I couldn’t go on. As soon as I have a feeling, and perhaps a sense of the melody, a phrase in the melody, and a few words, then I’m reaching for some kind of formal idea. Then I work with that and against it.

Robinson: Right.

Berrigan: I’ll go directly with the formal idea, or I’ll start to go with it and then try to introduce counter-measures to keep myself from achieving it until such time as I can achieve it. Can I read something else? This is a poem from quite early, and then I’ll read a fairly recent one. We’ll see if they are similar, because I think they are totally similar. Here’s a poem I wrote in 1962, and it’s called “Personal Poem #9.”

[Reads “Personal Poem #9.” MP3]

That was written in 1962. Here’s something I wrote maybe about five years ago, 1973. This is perhaps a little more wordy, but maybe there’s some similarity. This is called “Crystal.”

[Reads “Crystal.” MP3]

Hejinian: I hear that one as more feminine and more tough.

Berrigan: Yeah, it is more feminine. I was really, in 1962, when I was in this certain state, I was twenty-eight and I was butch, actually. I was quite aggressive about everything. Now I’m more campy, but I’ve got to erase that part of the tape — [Laughter.] But by ten years later, I was more able to be. I was able to be mellower about my furies, and more expressive perhaps of my loves, kind of. I wasn’t really having to hack my way through the undergrowth of daily reality so much. I realized that nobody really cared about what I did. So, it was all right to do it well.

Hejinian: That’s part of the liberation of the second half of the life.

Berrigan: Right. I had my … I had been liberated as a woman, right.

Hejinian: Right.


Berrigan: I had suffered the pleasures of woman’s liberation for myself. Now I have to suffer the pleasures of women.


Berrigan: I should read a work that will be the summation of my entire life and career, right? Do I have any works like that? Yeah, maybe I do.

Hejinian: The once and future poem.

Berrigan: This is a regression to an earlier kind of thing. It’s called “Three Pages.” It’s for Jack Collom.

[Reads “Three Pages.” MP3]

Robinson: And on that note —

Berrigan: I’ll close with a very short poem actually. It’s called “Remembered Poem.”

[Reads “Remembered Poem.” MP3]

Hejinian: Thanks, Ted, very much for coming in. It’s been a treat having you here.

Berrigan: Thank you.

Robinson: Tune in next week at the same time.

Inhabiting both sides

Aaron Shurin’s correspondences

The first time I read an Aaron Shurin poem, I entered another poetic country where the sound of language, its gorgeous rhythms and contours, coalesced with image. I didn’t fully understand intellectually what the poem was “about,” but I did get the feeling it gave off. I interviewed Shurin recently, hoping to answer some of my questions about his writing process. On the surface, Shurin’s verse can appear confessional since many of his poems look autobiographical. In “The Wheel” from Into Distances, the speaker says, “I’m sitting here — the failure of things — as one is — all this complicated material must be beautiful. To speak about the white heat of iron — it seems cold — wrapped in a firm hand of nature — words are also white-hot. I was finding more that isn’t perfect, and feel older in order to ripen.” Much of his language and imagery emerges from associative thought, a skillful rendering of self as processed through language. In his prose poems in particular, Shurin borrows words and phrases from others, making them his own lens on the inner and outer worlds, allowing him to manifest many selves; they are all both him and not him. Though some words don’t necessarily originate with Shurin, they sound as if they do.

In describing how he appropriates the language he finds in his sources, Shurin says, “I re-route my compositional habits and my predictive combinations … Even predictive lexicon. So I had to be careful not to let myself look for what I wanted [in the borrowed texts] and rather let the poem find what it needed.” As Shurin points out here, while he collages the language from other writers, he tries to undermine his own expected impulses so he can inhabit an unfamiliar landscape limned by his own articulations and those of the writers whose discourse he shares.

Shurin’s use of the prose poem, which has a significant presence in his collections, originated from his fascination with the line. Initially, Whitman’s long lines inspired him. Shurin says, “I started writing long lines, and the lines just got longer and longer until they started wrapping. In a way, once they started wrapping across the right margin say two times, they were hard to distinguish from prose.” Since then, he has moved between the lyric and the prose poem until the boundaries between these modes tend to dissolve. His collection A Paradise of Forms follows this evolution from Giving Up the Ghost through Involuntary Lyrics, both of which rely more on the traditional line. They frame excerpts from works that mainly contain prose poems, A’s Dream, Into Distances, and A Door being just three examples. These final lines from “Envoy” illustrate the music Shurin strives for in his work: “Syncopation, / spoor, holy war // or syntax. The shadow / letters appear.”

In the following interview, Shurin discusses his narrative practices, taking us inside the various processes he has followed over the years.  

Lily Iona MacKenzie: I want to start with the essay “Narrativity” that you published in 1990 and this particular quote:

I'm interested in the utilization of both poetic and narrative tensions: the flagrant surfaces of lyric, the sweet dream of storied events, the terror of ellipsis, the audacity of dislocation, the irreversible solidity of the past tense, the incarnate lure of pronouns, the refractability of pronouns, the simultaneity of times, the weights and balances of sentences. I'm interested in lyric's authenticity of demonstration and narrative's drama of integration; lyric, whose operation is display, and narrative, whose method is seduction. What was the context for this piece on narrativity?

Aaron Shurin: It was first given as a talk at a place called the Painted Bride in Philadelphia. Later, when Doug Messerli from Sun & Moon Press was starting a chapbook series called Twenty Pages, this was one of the first chapbooks he put out. It’s also, now, online and also appeared in Biting the Error, an anthology of new narrative theory.

MacKenzie: What prompted you to talk about this particular subject?

Shurin: I had already started writing prose poems, so the dynamic intersection of prose and poetry that is a prose poem was very much on my mind. Also, what the prose poem gathered from prose, particularly how to use narrative and how to incorporate narrative into a poetic form and structure, interested me. The new narrative writers that I was very close to were simultaneously engaged in articulating a new narrative theory around personal experience.

MacKenzie: Who were some of those poets?

Shurin: They were in general prose writers rather than poets. Bob Glück especially. Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, and others. I’ve been very close to Bob: He and I pretty much began publishing together in the early gay press and have been colleagues and confreres since. I’ve been enormously close to his writing and influenced by it. As I got more housed in the prose poem, I got more interested in narrative per se. Narrativity talks about Kevin and it talks about Bob. It talks about a variety of narrative strategies related to poetry or experimental prose — Bob, Kevin, Dodie, and Bruce Boone were mostly prose writers, but they really “lived” in the poets’ community — and of my interest in conflating narrative and lyric components. A writing invested in subjectivity and person and event, but also in rhetoric and sound and measure and phonemic density and the opacity of language. It seemed to me — in the dialogue that was kicked off by language poetry — one was challenged to be on one side or the other, one side of “representation” or the other. I never wanted to surrender either side, so I tried to articulate what was my organic pursuit anyway — the conflation of two modes: poetic surface, let’s say, and narrative depth. In my own intellectual and creative life, anytime there’s a binary system, I’m drawn to inhabit both sides.

MacKenzie: Yes!

Shurin: That would be true of gender, too, which is part of what I talk about in Narrativity: maneuvering through gender position so that a speaker becomes a kind of malleable or faceted or unlocated subject on the gender spectrum.

MacKenzie: Many of your poems move fluidly among gender. At times you’re clearly inhabiting the female point of view. Other times it sounds like a male perspective.

Shurin: Right.

MacKenzie: But many seem to be persona poems.

Shurin: I’d say they’re just shy of persona. I would say person rather than persona. They’re constructed by the voice or pronoun of the indicated speaker rather than by some mask of a person or identity. They’re less than a persona because they’re only there as far as the speaking subject.

MacKenzie: In that particular poem.

Shurin: In that instance, yes.

MacKenzie: I’m curious about something that’s been said about gay poetry in general, especially for poets who are more innovative in their work. It’s suggested that the layering of texts that partially conceals the writer’s identity parallels the way gay identity often must be concealed and glimpsed through layers. Do you think being gay affects your choice of poetics, and do you think there’s a gay poet’s sensibility that’s different say from a heterosexual poet’s?

Shurin: That’s an ongoing question of shifting relevance, and part of that has to do with the historical development of society and culture. There was definitely a point where one needed to claim it, claim the experience, claim the identity, and even claim the words — flaming faggots and such, or Fag Rag, the radical journal, or later Queer Nation. I think all those things were crucial, and I certainly participated in them. I’ve never masked the sexuality in my poems unless I was interested in creating a specific non-homosexual experience (which I do all the time), but that’s different from masking. Gay material has always been forthright in my poetry. But I think as time goes on, the label “gay poetry” may become less informing rather than more informing. It begins to limit the context in which my work may be read or approached. I’m not sure now it’s a particularly useful way of describing my poetry in any complex way. I think it can be included as part of the picture, and I would never negate its value as part of the picture. But there are so many other poetic and aesthetic components to my writing, as well as socio/cultural/historical valences, that to call it gay poetry doesn’t find its dimension at this point. But it’s not not.

MacKenzie: Okay.

Shurin: It’s also.

MacKenzie: It’s also. I like that.

Shurin: As to gay sensibility: I think it’s a still-open debate. Unquestionably in the community there are traditions, and one learns from them and participates in them, and maybe there are socio/cultural alignments that find literary expression or equivalences, much like gender: expressiveness, flamboyance, sensuality, shamelessness, abjection … but none of these are limited to gay men, and of course not all gay writers are flamboyant or shameless …

MacKenzie: I want to return to your choice of the prose poem and what led you to that form because your earlier work seemed [to be] more traditionally lyric poetry. Why did you make that shift?

Shurin: I had been mesmerized by the line break, which I came to think of as the main focus, if not obsession, of the generation-plus that preceded me, the generation probably starting with Pound and Williams whose duty it was to discover a non-metrical line.

MacKenzie: Right.

Shurin: So a lot of their thinking about poetry — right up through Creeley and Levertov, Olson and even Duncan — the projective verse poets in particular — was about creating the line, the line as the focus of new a prosodic structure. They were my teachers, and so that was absorbing to me too. But after a while, it came to feel emptied out for me. I thought there are other things to obsess over in the poem, other urgencies and prosodic elements to be attended, and those earlier poets already did that. But more organically, the possibilities of prose poetry were emerging, I think, under the influence of Whitman. I started writing long lines, and the lines just got longer and longer until they started wrapping. In a way, once they started wrapping across the right margin say two times, they were hard to distinguish from prose. There wasn’t any printing circumstance that was going to show a two foot-long line, let’s say.

MacKenzie: True.

Shurin: So once they started wrapping, and as they got longer, I became interested in the kind of interior modulations possible within a long line: all the syntactic prose modulations, which include punctuation marks, the proposition of the beginning and end of a sentence, ellipses and interjection, subordinate clauses, etc. All of those possibilities became more various and interesting to me than the simple projective-based line break. 

MacKenzie: You use collage in many of your poems. For example, I was looking at Into Distances, and in the second stanza/paragraph of the title poem, it reads, “She labored down the path barefoot.” The poem’s focus seems to be on a female character — the word grandmother comes up and so on — and it goes on for several pages. I’m wondering what moved you to write that particular poem. Where do you start?

Shurin: There are two different ways of looking at it. What moved me to write that poem was all my experience and interest in the world. I don’t think there was any given autobiographical moment or circumstance that one could equate with this pioneer panorama, which is part of the underpinning of that poem. Certainly part of it is the drama of landscape.

MacKenzie: Yes.

Shurin: That was one of the things that interested me in narrative, and prose theory, let’s say: the use of landscape as a dramatic register. I had been reading a lot of H. Rider Haggard, the great, oddball Victorian novelist. Actually I wrote an essay about this for Poetics Journal. I came to see that if you look at modernism, from Joyce to Woolf to whomever, Robbe-Grillet, the impulse had been a withdrawal from descriptive locale, at least in part because the movies took it. If you want that, you go to see a movie in cinemascope, or now 3-D or Imax. That kind of densely articulated landscape and action became the province of the movies. I liked that very much and wanted to incorporate the dramatic elements — panorama, foreground and background — into my poetry. That is one of the underpinnings of a poem like “Into Distances.” Elsewhere I think was collaged from H. Rider Haggard, if I remember correctly. Some of “Into Distances” came from Agnes Smedley. I don’t know if you know her.

MacKenzie: I don’t.

Shurin: She was a kind of post Emma Goldman revolutionary, an American grassroots pioneer woman who also wound up participating in the Chinese revolution. She lived in China and may have marched in the Long March. I don’t remember exactly. I read several books of hers, but this was from Daughter of Earth, her autobiography. But that’s neither here nor there. As in so much of the source material, it was simply what I was reading. Duncan has a beautiful quote where he says books are as real to me as persons or places. In a way, I took that on faith. My experience in books was primary, but it was also primary language experience. It was the site for me to find words to use, and I just found them often in what I was reading at present. But I would also have a disposition, yet I couldn’t be reductive and tell you what the disposition to “Into Distances” was since it’s such a strange and broadly cast poem. For other poems I would have had some disposition which might have just been I want to write something sexy, or I want to write something mysterious, or I want to write something light and lyrical. I would migrate to a Virginia Wolf book or a Colette book or a Raymond Chandler book where I knew an appropriate lexicon might be found. If I had a pastoral impulse, let’s say, I wouldn’t go to Raymond Chandler because I knew I wasn’t going to find that language there. But I would go to Colette because I knew I was going to find trees and flowers and sky. So I found the words to compose as I needed.

MacKenzie: Your poetic dictionary.

Shurin: My poetic dictionary, exactly.

MacKenzie: When you’re reading, then, are you underlining or highlighting things that grab you?

Shurin: No. In the system I used for those books, and that would be starting with the later section of A’s Dream, all of Into Distances, and all of A Door, I established rules for myself. Generally the rule was I could only move forward in the text. I couldn’t go back. The thing I didn’t want to do is search out what I needed because then it’s just like normal composition. I wanted to find what I needed so I could reroute my compositional habits and my predictive combinations, let’s say. Even predictive lexicon. So I had to be careful not to let myself look for what I wanted and rather let the poem find the words it needed. Almost always I would say I can only move forward in the text when choosing words. And there isn’t a single word I can use that I don’t see first. Any single word that appears in any of those poems arrives via the text. Every single word. 100%. Every “the,” every “of,” every “and,” every “I,” every “you.”

MacKenzie: What was the basis for that rule you made?

Shurin: The basis was an extension of my original impulse towards constraint, which was to reroute the kind of suffocating tightness of my hand, which I came to feel was too bound, too controlling. And I wanted to re-route my poor brain so that I wasn’t regurgitating the same kinds of experience habitually. I also didn’t want to be limited by my own experience or my narrow knee-jerk interpretations or recall of my own experience. I was led into other, deeper reservoirs by finding language outside of my ready vocabulary.

MacKenzie: Your collection, The Paradise of Forms, really is a paradise of forms. From what you’ve said, it sounds as if form is an important component of your approach to poetry.

Shurin: The Graces starts investigating prose poems and long lines. By the time of A’s Dream, which was also collaged — even the non-prose poems were collaged, starting with I think “Artery,” the first poem — all those poems use a certain collage methodology. By the end, the long poems that I was writing — not Into Distances but in A Door — some of the longer poems, especially the title poem and there was another one, “Human Immune,” used multiple simultaneous texts. I think the poem “A Door” used seven simultaneous texts. It was the most elaborate process. And then each text fed a stanza, and the stanzas were in rotation, and the stanzas also lengthened.

MacKenzie: When you say in rotation, what do you mean?

Shurin: Each stanza uses words derived from one book. The first seven stanzas are from the first seven books. Then stanzas eight through fourteen recapitulate the sequence. Stanza eight goes back to book one. Stanza nine goes back to book two. At the same time, they’re expanding in length because I was interested in narrative depth and saturation, in exploring how to sustain narrative movement and intensity. So in its very free-form way, there were seven very slightly altered waves that were independent but fed the same poem, and the narrative tensions just got stronger as the stanzas got longer. It was 100% collaged, so at some point I had seven books open on my desk. I had created this kind of fabulous monster for myself. I loved working that way, but I think that was the end. It became a little unwieldy.

MacKenzie: So when you are working in this way and you’re using language that is coming from different sources, do you become conscious at some point of a thread that’s developing?

Shurin: Of course. The language is generative. And then you make or follow a way through. The great mystery of this process is that in the end it sounds like you. These poems sound like my poems. They have my voice in them. The mark of my head and my style and my poetic thought is all through them, which tells us something about language and authorship. And any poem, any language utterance, is about choice, so this is just rerouting the system of choice. But it really isn’t any different. You choose the words (unless you’re using a Cageian or a Maclow-like pure-chance procedure). But this isn’t chance procedure; I’m choosing the words. There may be a lot of resistance put up by the procedure so that I can’t over select them, because one of the rules is you have to move fairly fast. What’s being sought is something other than your usual sense of combination or coherence.

MacKenzie: It’s a little like freewriting, only it’s using other texts.

Shurin: Yeah. And because it’s so complex a process, it’s not exactly free, it’s a form. The intensity of composition is multiplied, I would say. So to go back to that question, sure, I always have a sense of what was informing the poem, though it may be spontaneously developed. I just expanded my sense of what that structure could be, of what meaning could be.

MacKenzie: Did this impulse towards form ever encourage you to try some of the traditional forms other than the sonnet, which you have done in Involuntary Lyrics? 

Shurin: I wasn’t so interested in traditional forms. This was my version of a traditional form. I was interested in forms. I’m interested in the pressure of what form provides, but the traditional forms seemed of their period and emptied out. These other constraints were more interesting to me. When Involuntary Lyrics came along, it was, for me, a reduced procedure of using just the end words of Shakespeare’s lines. But still it has the essence of the use of the form as a compositional aid to re-route the brain. In a way, the form helps to enact a combined left-brain and right-brain poetry: one side has to do with vision and what you see, and one side has to do with your language usage. In the case of the collage methodology used in Involuntary Lyrics, what I see or what is there is the end word of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So in combining the right-brain and the left-brain emphases, or we could call it the right hand and the left hand, where one is fixed (the seen word) and the other is mutable (the rest of the line) — let’s say language is a left-brain activity, but visual perception is a right-brain activity. If you’re seeing text, if the language is arriving through visual recognition, you’re re-routing the left-brain activity into the right-brain activity. So I felt this kind of holistic energization that permitted me an entry into another way of seeing. I wrote, in part, with my eye, with my eye in my hand!

MacKenzie: And also you reinvented the sonnet in certain ways.

Shurin: In certain ways, but I tend to say those aren’t sonnets. I’ve had an argument with a poet who has insisted because they are fourteen lines, they are sonnets and that’s the determining nature of the sonnet. I don’t think that. Involuntary Lyrics isn’t written in what I call sonnet mind when I teach the prosody course, which I believe is the defining element of the sonnet. I’d sooner think a poem with eleven lines and sonnet mind could be a sonnet rather than a non-sonnet-minded poem of fourteen lines.

MacKenzie: I get it.

Shurin: So they derived from sonnets, or they were in correspondence with sonnets, but I don’t think of them as sonnets.

MacKenzie: Except I was looking at them as a new form of sonnet.

Shurin: Yes, they could be, though I wasn’t thinking of sonnets. That’s all I’m saying. They don’t have turns. On the other hand I would say at various points — rather more because of Shakespeare than because of sonnet — there is a kind of rhetoric and a syntax that’s sonnet like, at least in terms of being Elizabethan.

MacKenzie: Yes, a voice comes through in some of them that sounds like the Bard speaking.

Shurin: Right. That was because I was using all of the end words. Well the end words are the rhyme words. They are a kind of easy storehouse, and also show what’s acceptable to the Elizabethan ear. Words like love and time come up a lot, which aren’t so easy to use in contemporary circumstance in the same way. So when time comes up and when love comes up, it’s an abstracted lexicon that we might normally shun. I couldn’t because they were there; they were the end rhymes; that was the rule. I think part of that spirit of the historical language, and the rhetoric associated with the language, gives the poems at points an elevated tone, which to our ear is a little reminiscent of sonnets — which I’m delighted with.

MacKenzie: Was there a lot of collage as well in Involuntary Lyrics? It didn’t feel like it.

Shurin: None. Just the end words.

MacKenzie: The poems seem to express more of your own day-to-day concerns or interests.

Shurin: That was part of the project. I wanted the quotidian to be part of the material. I wanted there to be high and low. I wanted to cast a wide net. And I wanted there to be the high-minded sentiment that some of the sonnets express. I also wanted quotidian life to counter the highmindedness. I think Involuntary Lyrics is marked by these wide shifting tonalities of rhetoric and diction.

MacKenzie: Yes, it’s rich in variety and shape. It’s a wonderful text for teaching poetry.

Shurin: Thanks. I’ve always thought it would be. Long lines and short lines …

MacKenzie: Exactly. And some of the single words in columns and how they all hook up in unusual ways. Some poems start as if the reader is walking into the middle of something, and others start more formally. To change direction for a moment, where does King of Shadows fit in to the chronology of books you’ve published?

Shurin: King of Shadows came after Involuntary Lyrics. Then there was a two-year period of relaxation, and mostly that’s because I wrote Involuntary Lyrics’ 154 poems in a year and a half.

MacKenzie: Intense!

Shurin: It was quite a compressed experience. What I kept saying to myself afterwards is I don’t feel depleted, I feel completed.

MacKenzie: Wonderful.

Shurin: I felt like I had completed the gesture and then completed this kind of return to the line. The book was really a crazed reinvestigation of what that torque of a line break can be. And that line-break torque can just about take your head off in Involuntary Lyrics. I think that was one of the primary investigations I undertook and played with.

MacKenzie: Talk a little more about what you learned about the line and line breaks from doing Involuntary Lyrics.

Shurin: Well, the learning was in the sense of performing rather than something you take away: something you enact (though I did learn to be more fearless.) There were a bunch of things I was interested in prosodically in Involuntary Lyrics. One was what the torque of the line could be and how syntax might be manipulated or creatively employed in the service of that torque, which is engendered by the set word that is ending the line. That word is likely to be enjambed in the middle of a perception; otherwise it would be all end-stops. So how do you go across it; what do you do with this word that’s sitting there in some way at the end but also in the middle? I found that a kind of jumpy syntax could absorb the radical shifts from line to line these set words demanded. So that was one thing. Also, these were all rhyme words, so one of the things I wanted to investigate was how to use the rhymes without them being singsong-y.

MacKenzie: Right.

Shurin: Then it really would have been just a sonnet, since these were all rhyming words. So I found out how to take them out of order. That was the impulse behind making long lines and short lines in the same poem because I wanted to see how a measure of eight accents versus a measure of two accents, say, with a rhyme at the end of each, would affect the rhyme. How much your ear would hear it or not. In general the idea was to not hear it — to let the rhyme be there but to not hear it. So Involuntary Lyrics, both via kind of very fluid syntax and variation of line length, tries to find a way of permitting but not over inscribing the rhymes that are sent there from the Shakespeare poems.

MacKenzie: Has that experience made you want to do more with the traditional line?

Shurin: Actually, no. I think that experience made me feel completed in relation to the line. Then for five years I wrote pure prose, which was King of Shadows. And now I’ve just completed Citizen, which is a return to prose poems.

MacKenzie: What was the shift like for you from writing “poetry” to writing the King of Shadows, which is mainly “prose.”

Shurin: To me it is definitely prose, and not even prose poems. It’s different than prose poems; it’s much more narrative. It’s also essayistic, discursive, and dramatic: it has scene. As well as complex language and sentence structure …

MacKenzie: And the lyricism …

Shurin: And the lyricism.

MacKenzie: I think the King of Shadows has very lyrical prose.

Shurin: Yeah, that’s always part of my writing and what I’m interested in. I wrote something like this prose in Unbound. I knew King was a more mature circumstance, and it was going to be a larger gesture. It was incredibly difficult. I felt I had to teach myself how to write prose, invent the prose I needed to write.

MacKenzie: What made it so difficult?

Shurin: One, the territory was new. In Involuntary Lyrics, I was in verse, in lines, which I knew so well, and in a kind of poetry which I knew so well. It was a lark. I knew exactly what I wanted to do in Involuntary Lyrics. It was all familiar. It was new in the sense of a new project, but I know how to write poetry. But in King of Shadows, I even have dialogue. The idea of writing dialogue was just appalling to me.

MacKenzie: Why?

Shurin: Because I don’t know how to do it. I have no experience, and it’s a very different beast. Very different. What’s the negotiation between the formal registers of how you write people’s speech and how they actually talk? How does it serve a narrative structure? Then all the shifts in point of view and description and action. It required all of the complex aspects of my prose poetry that combined lyrical and dramatic texture, but it was also “real,” nonfiction. The one rule that was operative in writing the pieces in King of Shadows was I wanted narrative to carry the day, but I also wanted to be able to write about anything. So what I thought was that not even a thought took place without being located in a body or person in place and time. There would be no thought in this book unless a person in a particular circumstance was thinking it. That became the model for the narrative. Even if I thought, “Oh, I want to write about this garden …” I can’t just write about this garden. I can write about being in the garden in relation to the garden and what I’m thinking about the garden as I’m in the garden. But if I’m home thinking about it, then I have to be in my house, in my home, in a time thinking about the garden. So everything was going to be housed inside of narrative coordinates of time and place and person. That was very different than the kinds of tensions poetry sustains.

MacKenzie: Was it difficult to focus so much on your own personal history?

Shurin: No, that wasn’t difficult at all. In fact it’s a common thing that people have said to me: “Oh, you’re so brave!” Or, “How does it feel revealing all this stuff about yourself?” My answer is it didn’t feel weird at all. What would I want to do? Hide myself? The impulse is towards discovery of meaning, including the discovery of oneself. So there is no act that shame will try to cover — and this is very much under the tutelage of Duncan. There is no shame. There is just experience. And anyway, I don’t presume that I’m the only poor little fool who had these experiences. So I have no shame, no compunction. Nor do I feel that I am revealing myself in any particular way, though other people feel that. I just feel this is experience and I’m interested in it. Let’s find out what it was. I remember feeling such and such and I remember I did this or that. And these experiences all led to making a mature, interested human. I’ve made it to a pretty ripe place, so there’s so reason to feel I need to censor any part. Personal history is just another history.

MacKenzie: That’s great.

Shurin: That part was all quite easy to do. I did it with relish actually. I met myself in new ways. One of the things I did learn as I was writing King of Shadows is that the narrator as fool is a much more approachable figure, a more sympathetic figure, than the narrator as sovereign, let’s say.

Shurin as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

MacKenzie: In a way that goes back to when you played Puck instead of Oberon in a high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From what I understand, your own impulses as a poet also started to stir then.

Shurin: Yeah, I think they did. There are those few lines in King of Shadows where I talk about putting on the mask that would come to be my own true face. Actually, I have a lot of Oberon in me, but if you look at me, it’s Puck who I am really. I don’t know if that still equates to the fool, but in any event …

MacKenzie: But I think the fool and Puck are a wonderful conflation. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive at all.

Shurin: Right.

MacKenzie: I think they’re in harness.

Shurin: Right. There’s a fool in the Commedia dell’arte sense, which is quite different, or the wise fool.

MacKenzie: And the fool in the Tarot that steps off the cliff, but it’s that adventure spirit, that willingness to open oneself up to new experiences and not shut oneself down.

Shurin: Yeah. As I was writing King of Shadows that was one of the main things I learned in constructing the identity of this person who stands for me. After all, it’s not me; it’s writing. But in all these autographical pieces there’s this figure, a first person who is standing for me. I found that I had to place that figure, had to feel what the tenor of his point of view would be. I think I discovered a levity in relation to it, the poor fool in a tender sense, and it helped me distance myself, and find some humility in relation to the density of my experience. It helped me forgive myself, and understand myself better. But that was part of a long process — figuring out all these things that are part of prose that I’m not worried about in poetry where the pronouns are shifting, and the identities are shifting, and it’s me or it’s not me, or there is no “me.”

MacKenzie: What started you off on your most recent collection, Citizen?

Shurin: The poems in Citizen were born in a panel presentation at the SFMOMA on the sculptor Martin Puryear, who was having a show there. We were asked to respond to Puryear’s work. I took the invitation not as a critical occasion but really a moment to enact a work in relation to his sculpture. I felt I was being asked to write poetry. I had no idea what I would do or what mode or anything since I had just come out of King of Shadows and I hadn’t written poetry for five years. So I went to the Puryear show with my little notebook and, spontaneously, as I was looking at the extraordinary and beautiful work, as I read the little museum tags, those descriptive panels, I decided to jot down words that named the materials he used — cedar or wagon or yellow or twine. That was the available lexicon. I went down and grabbed something to eat in the museum café and opened my notebook. Before I could say boo, I had written the words down in a loose grid in my notebook. I started writing, and every so often worked in one of the words from the grid that I had found on the Puryear tags. Soon enough, I had written a poem. I think my feeling was, well, my response to Puryear is to use the same materials but in poetry. But my version of the same materials was the words that were naming his materials. So I could say I did a Puryear sculpture using what he used, cedar and twine and wood and wagon, etc. You’ll see in the first poem of Citizen, “an empty wagon flares on a hillside.” I believe I wrote three poems for that occasion, all using those little grids. I went back and wrote down another set of words, and I thought that’s interesting. It does some of what I’m interested in doing, which is to say it has a structural constraint, so it helps me kick out the tightness but not be so obsessive as in the 100% collages of A Door.

MacKenzie: Right.

Shurin: And as part of my presentation at the museum, I put together my one and only power point presentation where I took a picture of my notebook, the grid of the words, and I showed people the poem. And then I showed people the poem with the words derived from Puryear in bold face so they could see the structure. That then became the model. The book doesn’t say, these poems were written with a grid. It’s like saying they were written with a ballpoint or a fountain pen. Or they were typed or they were written at home or they were written outside. It’s just a compositional aid of interest to people who are interested in compositional strategies. So all of Citizen was written in that way. They’re all prose poems. But another thing relevant to Citizen is I was traveling a lot. I’m interested in place anyway, and there’s a lot of place, a lot of different places, coming into the poems in Citizen. That’s partly why the title is that. It’s very saturated with the coordinates of the world, even when they are imaginary constructions and not autobiographical constructions. The work has a very permeable relation to the world of time and space.

MacKenzie: And there’s a lot of collage in these poems too?

Shurin: No, only those little grids, which are usually somewhere between fifteen and twenty words. The poem could be a page or it could be half a page. Usually I try to use all the words, but I don’t go crazy over it if they don’t quite fit.

MacKenzie: They’ll go in the next one!

Shurin: Yes, they do. There are a bunch of formal elements in Citizen, and one is that there are motifs that thread the book. There are five or six different repeated and modulated motifs that are like unifying threads that go throughout the poems. Some are repeated phrases. Some are repeated narrative tropes like “Once I was.” Some are rhetorical structures. Repetition. There are about half a dozen different ones that appear any number of times throughout the book that unify it as something other than just a random collection.

MacKenzie: When you’re revising your work, do you have any particular revision process that you go through? Is it different with every poem, with every collection?

Shurin: I don’t have any process. It’s just a matter of getting it right.

MacKenzie: What would “getting it right” mean for you?

Shurin: Getting it right would be the exact shade of any phrase that is both sonically and perceptually coherent on its own and in relation to the other parts of the poem. So something might have an extra beat, or something might have a shade of meaning slightly off than what I want in the set of correspondences that make up the poem. Or it may be too wordy or not wordy enough.

MacKenzie: Do you read the poems aloud?

Shurin: Always. That’s the final register. It’s not a completed poem until it meets the oral and auditory test.

MacKenzie: I hear in your work a lot of music in how you use punctuation. You’re also sensitive to the sounds of words, how they work together. Has music been important to you at all?

Shurin: My poetry seeks to be music, so there’s no kind of referential aspect. Music is as important to me as to most people, but the music of language, absolutely and always. The first poems that really marked my interest in poetry were the kind of rhyming narrative ballads of American poetry: “Casey at the Bat” and “Face upon the Barroom Floor,” which I discovered as an adolescent and instantly memorized for no reason or occasion except I wanted to memorize the poems. If you’re memorizing, especially if it’s a metered rhymed poem, then you’re inhabiting auditory structure. So that was the first thing that really articulated my interest in poetry. Then when I was seventeen and played Shakespeare and came to the great Oberon sequence, “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.” It was an experience of phonemic play that had immense authority for me and posed this kind of unity of semantic and phonemic density together that really would be my model for what poetry could be. For me, a poet’s ear is the defining quality. A poet can be smart, can use kick-ass procedures, but if I don’t sense a poet’s ear, I cannot sustain an interest in the poem.

MacKenzie: Are there contemporary poets you read whose work fits your criteria?

Shurin: Any work that I go to has to have that quality.

MacKenzie: Are there poets writing now that you look to for inspiration?

Shurin: Sure. Michael Palmer is a great instance of a poet who has a lyric ear and a beautifully skeptical mind, which is to say the beauty of his poetry is that it retains lyric integrity while fulfilling a skepticism about lyric possibility. It both gives and takes away. It performs a deep suspicion of language and the whole structure of language meaning while at the same time enacting lyrical meaning in all its glory.

MacKenzie: I understand that you read Proust. Does he inspire you in certain ways when you write?

Shurin: Proust is one of the great lodestars for me, certainly as I began writing more prose, and I think the prose of King of Shadows bled over into prose poems in Citizen. Proust is the great genius of prose as far as I’m concerned. Your sense of literature and the possibilities of literature will be altered if you read Proust carefully, the whole thing.

MacKenzie: Why do you think that is?

Shurin: It’s a monumental reinvention of the capacity of prose, both at a macroscopic level and at a microscopic level: the transcendental almost hallucinogenic vision combined with the scalpel-like Balzacian view of social structure, and the psychological Freudian-like unmasking of personal intention, behavior and gesture. So many through lines of such intensity and integrity and maximalization are coexistent in Proust. To me it’s a feast of full potential and has made me more fearless in pursuit of my own maximalism. 

Unrehearsed chemicals

A conversation between Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Rosa Alcalá

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I know that there are a number of manuscripts — half-finished? completed and shelved? — which predate your first book Undocumentaries. What was the evolution of your first book? How many years went into it and how did it develop?

Rosa Alcalá: My first manuscript was my MFA thesis. When I was at Brown, my work started changing, so the thesis poems range from very traditional lyric poems to more experimental ones. Because I learned English shortly after Spanish, and because I’ve always moved between the two, I’ve always been struck by the materiality and aural qualities of language. So, my poems have this thread between them, for me anyway. I’m fond of some of the poems in that thesis (I think it was called In Translation; the title has changed many times since), but I’m just in a different place right now. Still, the concerns of those poems — identity, language, class, etc. — are clearly in Undocumentaries, which I wrote in my first four years teaching at the University of Texas-El Paso. The manuscript that followed the thesis and precedes Undocumentaries, is now titled The Lust of Unsentimental Waters and is forthcoming from Shearsman Books. I wrote it while doing my PhD in English at SUNY–Buffalo, where I was reading lots of translation theory — lots of theory in general — and as a result, the poems, very sparse and economic, are a thinking-through of some of those theories. I started translating in the mid 1990s — after a childhood of interpreting for non-English speaking parents — and as I read Barthes, Glissant, Mignolo, Anzaldúa, Benjamin, Kristeva, others, I felt a real emotional connection to some of those ideas. Sometimes I didn’t understand them very well; I’m sure I misunderstood them or battled with them or couldn’t quite make sense of what they were saying, but I felt like I “got it.” And some of the poems — not all of them — came out of that dialogue with the texts. I was also translating a book of poems (Lourdes Vazquez’s Bestiary) at the same time, so those concerns (anxieties?) are there, too. I think translation is the hardest job in the world. Certainly harder than writing poetry.

Wilkinson: For me, “Undocumentary” resonates somewhere between undocumented laborers and what cannot be documented in a “documentary” — what escapes the document, the record, or even recognition. What is the figure of the “Undocumentary” for you in these poems, and how does this word loom over the book for you?

Alcalá: I like that you use the word “loom,” with its reference to weaving, since this book is full of textile work. All my work is textile work, to some extent.

The book was originally titled Fact & Act, which gets at a similar idea, but Mónica de la Torre suggested Undocumentaries, after the first poem in the book. I love her work, and we translated a book together (Lila Zemborain’s Mauve Sea-Orchids), so I do what she tells me. I think her reasoning was that this title could be understood in many ways, including as a reference to undocumented workers. The term “undocumentary,” however, came about as I began to do research for the book. I knew I wanted to write about work/workers, particularly the type of work/workers that are often invisible, not represented in popular media. Rather than rely on my own experience — both my parents were factory workers, in textile and other industries — I felt compelled (fresh off my dissertation) to do research. I read articles, watched documentaries (like American Dream, about the Hormel Food factory strike in Minnesota, which is mentioned in the book), and took notes. But I felt that this didn’t quite get at “it” (and I didn’t know what the “it” was yet). I started weaving my own unstable file of experiences with what I was reading, and this lead to other research, which was woven in as well. I was rereading Williams’s Paterson at the time, so I took his collage technique as a guide. So, the “undocumentary,” for me, is the lyric’s “unrehearsed chemicals,” which in the archive or document becomes “a brighter or stiller image.” I say “brighter” because I think the archive has the ability to seduce with its certainty, its proof, but it’s “stiller,” less able to communicate the slipperiness of experience. The lyric, on the other hand, can continue to act out “the tensions of progress.” And, ultimately, this book — written in my first years as an assistant Professor — acts out those tensions, which felt so dizzying to me at the time, and still do to some extent.

In the end, however, this book is (in part) about the ways in which the working class — including undocumented workers — are not represented at all or are represented in clichéd or one-dimensional ways. I always felt — in very painful ways — the invisibility of my own parents’ working-class/immigrant lives in the representations of “American” identity. I remember someone asking me at Brown what my father “did.” No one had ever asked me that before. In my neighborhood, it just wasn’t a question. Maybe this book is an answer to what he — all those forgotten workers — did. But I don’t think it’s an easy answer — this question of representation — which is why many of these poems are fragmented or discursive, or in Glissant’s term, “errant,” and why the speaker of the last poem contemplates arson. It’s like Williams burning down the library in Paterson, for the possibility of new forms, new knowledge. Because he knows that presenting the “document” — even if that document is the poem — is a risky endeavor, a danger that can lead to a kind of reification of identity and experience. And also because he wants to move on from the past.

Wilkinson: You mention Williams’s Paterson a couple of times, which is where you’re from right? What are the effects of being from a hallowed American poetry city, where Ginsberg is also from. Does that influence your poetic thinking much? Is that something you try to court or escape? Do you recognize your Paterson in Williams’s work?

Alcalá: As I was reading your question, I had this memory of talking to Allen Ginsberg in his apartment in New York many years ago, and he was asking me if such and such place still existed in Paterson, and it felt so incredible to share this place — and to be able to give the “current” Paterson to Ginsberg, who was so well known for being from there. It felt a bit like that moment in Paterson when Ginsberg writes to Williams because he senses a kinship. Like Ginsberg, I always felt a kinship to Williams (who was actually from Rutherford, NJ), but I think it has more to do with the “Carlos” — you know that otherness book-ended by such Englishness. I mean, no matter how many Williamses you shingle onto it, “Carlos” stands out in Anglo-American modernism. He could have removed it from his name for matters of publication, I suppose, but he really would have had to put something in its place, because the measure of that name would have been fatal: William Williams. And in addition to fatal, if he had proceeded without the Carlos, he wouldn’t have been the poet he is, one who interrogates American identity, one who sees “Carlos” as part of the national fabric. And I think Williams was quite aware that this made him different, which Ezra Pound confirms when he says in a letter to him: “And America. What the hell do you a bloomin foreigner know about the place.” Although Pound acknowledges in the same letter that Williams, born in New Jersey, is an “Amerkun (same as me),” he also adds, “You thank your bloomin gawd you’ve got enough Spanish blood to muddy up your mind.”

I mean, on the one hand Pound seems to admire Williams’s work for its opacity, which he says is “not an American quality.” But there’s no getting away from the fact that he reinforces this native/foreign paradigm (alive today!) in American poetry, and Williams is most certainly, to him, not quite American enough. Pound, on the other hand, is a real American because he has had the “virus … of the land” in his blood for nearly “three bleating centuries.” Another real American, according to Pound? Harriet Monroe, who had “the swirl of the prairie wind in her underwear.” The native, as you see, are also the gatekeepers.

In short, Williams does influence me, but I’m aware that my understanding of identity, as well as Paterson (the city, as well as the book), is also tuned by growing up working class, and by having been a girl and now a woman. In Williams’s book the perspective is decidedly male and is certainly privileged and not from the city proper — someone who could walk freely, look around, accrete, ask questions, reconstruct. This “confession” makes me nervous, but I think it’s appropriate here: I was sexually assaulted near the Paterson Falls when I was in my early twenties; I’m aware of the dangers, like most women, of walking around freely, then and now. Even in my own poems.

Sometimes when I read the Cress (Marcia Nardi) letters, I think, oh, that could have been me (“I know myself to be more the woman than the poet,” or “But it’s never so simple as that to get on one’s feet even in the most ordinary practical ways for anyone on my side of the railway tracks — which isn’t your side.”) You know, I always want to identify with the authority of the book’s speaker, with Dr. Williams, but the truth is that perhaps I feel closer to the characters/people Williams puts to use, especially the female ones, even Madame Curie.

This comes up for me often in other ways. For example, the role of the bohemian woman artist in Mad Men (season 1) appeals to me, I want to be her, but I know that I would have more likely been in the secretarial pool. So, in some ways, my book gives voice to the secretarial pool, while the woman constructing the book is the artist; she really runs the show. Therein lies one of the book’s tensions: who can assemble and who is assembled — the gap and similarities between them. That is why so much of the book is informed by avant-garde art practices (land art, performance art, aleatoric practices, etc.): the speakers or characters referenced are imagined as works of art or as works in progress, as artists who work outside of the institutions of art. (As a side note, I recently learned that Williams, who as you know was a doctor, delivered Robert Smithson, the artist famously associated with land art! Which just feels perfect to me.) 

Wilkinson: And speaking of place, having met you in El Paso where you now live, what’s changed in your work since moving to the border of Texas and Mexico?

Alcalá: El Paso made the book possible for it created distance in some ways from my own perceived working class identity and from my place of origin.

I envision El Paso coming in more concretely, too in a future project, particularly its textile history. It was one of the primary finishers of jeans in the US prior to NAFTA. So, many of those stonewashed jeans you wore (yes, you) came from here. I just want to find a way to situate myself more fully in the place where I live and I seem to always do it through textile, which, as one person told me recently, is in my blood.

In the last few years here, the level of violence in Juárez, a city in Mexico that can be seen from El Paso, has risen to staggering heights. When I arrived here, there were women, many of them maquiladora workers, being raped and killed, and now the violence has spread throughout the city’s population, mostly related to drug wars. And I’m trying to get my mind around that and what my relationship to it is, how to talk about it in a way that’s meaningful and not exploitative or reductive. Meanwhile, I teach Benjamin Saenz’s The Book of What Remains, which I think takes on this issue, among others, in a complex, yet direct way.

Wilkinson: Obviously, violence and sexual violence must permeate your work — and life — in direct and indirect ways. What are your strategies? What have you learned about how you process violence? How does it shape your work?

Alcalá: That’s a good question. I know that others have detected anger in my work, but violence? I don’t know. Do you see violence in Undocumentaries? I am writing some things now that look at how we are connected to violence that doesn’t affect us directly. I think that violence (in all its forms — towards others in other countries, towards the oceans, etc.), our complicity in it, is very difficult to write about when it hasn’t happened to us, partly because the lyric is often seen (and taught) as a vehicle for first-hand experience. Extending (or reimagining) the “I,” without seeming predatory, romantic, or exploitative is hard (but necessary).

Wilkinson: I think many of the poems in Undocumentaries have a way of articulating a self (or selves) through a violence implicit in other matter of fact activities. As in the lines “Remembering is a trucking / yourself in” or “A dirty song, an ethnic dance. / A disappearance.” It’s not always violence as such, but an implication of it throughout, or a sort of permeation of it through the fabric of the book’s terrain. It doesn’t take long for a poem beginning with a description of John Cage “playing a chance operation” to leap to “My mother, the girl, is bleeding from the procedure.” I think that’s what I mean. A kind of subflooring of violence permeating the poem’s shifts and turns. Does this make sense or resonate for you? Is this conscious in your writing?

Alcalá: A “subflooring of violence”! Yes, that makes perfect sense to me. A subflooring so buried beneath layers of linoleum and tile (writing) that I was hardly aware of it. That isn’t quite true; I’m aware of the violence that is part of the fabric of these lives I’ve represented in the book. After all, the book begins with the bodies of workers scattered beneath lawns. But in my own thinking, when you asked me the question, this violence had become so part of the landscape, this rumbling beneath our feet, that it seemed separate from other acts of violence we were referring to. And, yet, it isn’t.

Wilkinson: I want to ask about the officiality of many of the poem’s titles versus the intimate landscape the poems actually draw from. Titles like “Party Line,” “Economic Crisis,” “National Affair,” “What It Means to Be Civilized,” and “Governance” all hearken to a kind of whitewashed, official idiom. And this seems to allow you a lot of contextual material to pivot from — since these are often very personal, introspective poems artfully belying their very titles. What draws you to titles like these? Do they come before or after you’ve written the poems? How do they work for you?

Alcalá: The titles come mostly after I’ve written the poems. I’ve been reading Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation,” and thinking of her clever — and complex — assertion that “Language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries.” For me — and for others, of course — the self is defined by boundaries; we are labeled in terms of nationality, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc. But those boundaries are “frayed,” to use Spivak’s term, in our rhetorical use of the language. For me, poetry is meant to show the fray between the self and larger structures that aim to contain or name or stabilize the self. But also I’m not necessarily interested in telling my “story” but in using the autobiographical as a way to explore these boundaries. That moving out — and that fraying between the language of the “true events” and the rhetorical moves of the poem — disrupt any inherent veracity, but the act of translation that I see as the poem respects that original “story” in a way that mere retelling could not. Spivak urges “intimacy” with the original, a surrender to it, and I think trying to understand what these experiences or lives connected to my own are saying — and not saying — and how they have been shaped by certain things (including my own maneuvers) — is more important than literality.

Wilkinson: I’d love to hear more about the avant-garde practices that most inform the work as well. You mention land and performance art, aleatoric practices — are these approaches in line with the kinds of artistic and working class tensions you cite?

Alcalá: I think that the poems map a kind of ambivalence regarding avant-garde art — any art perhaps, even poetry. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that art and poetry allow us to understand our world and to be in it more fully. That the poems I write are necessary as part of a larger ethical engagement with the world. There’s also a bit of this feeling that maybe poetry and art are inconsequential, especially when they don’t relate to “real lives” — that it’s all about being clever, ironic, “making it new” or “experimental,” writing for each other. My work struggles with these two polarities, and you can see that in the poems. I try not to shy away from it. I vacillate between glib and downright sincere. I want to just say “it” — whatever “it” is — and then I realize I don’t, because that feels false, too.

The other way I think of the book is as a kind of land art or assemblage/performance/installation of memory, which attempts to map out and draw attention to experience or a place in a way that acknowledges my own intervention. The book isn’t about something that “happened” but something that is constructed out of things that are remembered, imagined, invented, found, present. So the artistic or literary references are partially how I make this construction apparent. I am saying, there is a hand at work here. In “Land Art in the Silk City,” there’s a boy who keeps looking for a way to draw attention to both himself, as well as the place in which he lives — he wants to restore it to its original stature, to expose its beauty. He keeps sending away for guides that will allow him to develop special powers, to bring himself and the place that defines him into evidence. I feel the work of this book as connected to that boy’s desires. For me, those special powers can be found in language and art.

Parsing arias

A dialogue through 'abu ghraib arias'

This email correspondence/dialogue elicited by the abu ghraib arias between Iraq War veteran and poet Micah Cavaleri and poet and peace activist Philip Metres took place between June and September 2011. The conversation ranges from poetic analysis of particular poems of the arias to asking larger questions regarding ethics in wartime, in light of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of 2004. Throughout the dialogue, they engage the theological, political, and aesthetic questions embedded in this book and in the wider poetic practices that employ documentary texts and the voices of others.

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Apologies for getting to you a day late. A new baby, a reading, and the chance to teach a philosophy course at Michigan Tech this fall overwhelmed me all at once. Many good things coming at me these days. Which is a good thing as well as a segue into your arias. The religious fragments of your book transform an account of torture into a sort of theodicy, sort of like the Book of Job … an attempt to … not find the good, I suppose, which was how I intended the segue to work, but to confront or transform evil. Although evil may be too big and airy a notion. Disgusting, maybe, is the word. An attempt to confront the disgusting. 

In “The Blues of Charles Graner” there is the explicit acknowledgment of the disagreement between Graner’s Christian values and what he values in his role as a corrections officer: “can’t / help but love / make a grown man / piss himself.” (As an aria, I imagine these words worked over and over, climbing up octaves and then falling down as deep as the human voice can go … which makes me wonder how the idea of an aria is operating in this book.) The arias don’t leave me with a mere conflict of values, however.

The “(echo / ex/)” sections combine ancient religious/moral texts with accounts of torture at Abu Ghraib, which, initially, draws attention to the conflict Graner noted, by the difference on the page between the style of the notes on torture, sometimes faded, sometimes an ordinary black type, while the ancient texts are set in darker lettering or italicized. Strangely, though, the ancient texts intermingle with the Abu Ghraib accounts to produce beautiful, musical pieces, where I am drawn away from the conflict of values and wonder at what is being said about notions of holiness and scripture. For instance, the character of G functions as both Graner the torturer and God the creator and torturer:

G came and laughed

                                                            lo, in her mouth 

                        it will break again

arms behind

                                                broken because I can’t

sever pain

Again, there is this perfect instance of the melding of the role of torturer and creator/life-giver:

In the beginning                                      I was there for 67 days of

████████████                        torture I saw myself on the face

of the deep                   And the darkness he called Night

                                                  And Graner released

my hand from the door and he cuffed my hand in the back. 

The con-fusion of torturer and creator challenges the place of religion as anything like a moral guide at the same time it places religious values next to roles Americans (claim to) value, in this case the role of a soldier at war, undermining the claim to be able to hold both … what … religious values and patriotic/American values? What is most interesting to me, though, at least right now, is the way that your weaving together of what we consider such radically different texts leads to a reading that finds holiness in an act of torture. In the second quote, for example, “67 days of/ torture” resolves itself with the victim falling into some sort of mystical vision where he says “I saw myself on the face / of the deep And the darkness he called Night / And Graner released / my hand from the door.”

I am going to leave my comments here for the moment, as I want to give you a chance to respond. This book is a wonderful challenge for me, so I look forward to digging into it more deeply with you.



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Dear Micah,

First, congratulations on your new life, both your child’s and yours. It’s strange to think that it was right “in the wake” (as we are wont to say) of September 11, 2001, that my first child was conceived, and so there has been the twinning of my life as a father and the years of the War on Terror. And even stranger to realize a decade later that we’re still very much still “in the wake,” “in the dream” or “in the nightmare.” I think of John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” where “in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” Or Wallace Stevens: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

But you capture something exactly when you call the “arias” a theodicy, my poetic witness to and struggle with the question of — for lack of a better term — evil, and whether one might believe in a God that would allow such suffering. As I’ve written in the afterword, the “arias” emerged from long meditation on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which I decided that I could not write my way into or out of those photographs of abuse taken by the military police at Abu Ghraib. Only when I stumbled on transcripts of the testimony given by the Iraqi prisoners themselves did I discover a way to slip inside that prison. I think of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “through me many long dumb voices, / Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, / Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs.”

And yes, the Charles Graner poem highlights the contradictions at the heart of each of us who professes to be Christian and yet finds ourselves acting against the primal love of Jesus. Nowhere is the contradiction of Christian life as extreme as in war — yet ironically, many American soldiers profess to being deeply religious, even devout. (As I’m writing from Northern Ireland, I should just note that Gerry Adams, one of the leaders of Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army, went to mass every Sunday, even as he was planning bombings and assassinations.) Reading the transcripts of Iraqis abused at Abu Ghraib, one feels as if we are reading a perverse version of Genesis, in which God is a decreator. Graner, perhaps, as Obscene Father (to quote Slavoj Žižek).

You’ve put your finger on what is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of writing this poem, and perhaps writing any poetry that confronts disaster, that witnesses to violence; are we making such violence beautiful, and therefore somehow missing its profoundly traumatic core? Are we aestheticizing other people’s pain? I hope not, but it’s not for me to say. I recall my annoyance at a dear friend, a poet and a Marine, who is wont to quote Dostoyevsky’s line “beauty will save the world.” Conversations about beauty make me a little uncomfortable, because I’m not sure what anyone means by beauty. Robert Hass’s poem “Winged and Acid Dark” has become for me a guide for how one can write affirmatively and humbly about the difficulty of navigating the horror and beauty that exists simultaneously, always, often in the same spaces and times:


A sentence with “dappled shadow” in it.
Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.

Potsdamer Platz, May 1945.

When the first one was through he pried her mouth open.
Bashō told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no one to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.

Pried her mouth open and spit in it.
We pass these things on,
probably, because we are what we can imagine. 

Something not sayable in the morning silence.
The mind hungering after likenesses. “Tender sky,” etc.,
curves the swallows trace in air.

Some poets fetishize horror, and some poets pretend the knowable world is the circumference of grass just outside their studio window. All I know is that I cannot not look away. But the horror of the world is not the (only) truth of the world.

I’m writing to you from Belfast, Northern Ireland and have been leading a group of students and faculty in a course on peacebuilding. For a number of the people that we have met, the moment of metanoia, or conversion, was when they recognized in the pain of the other their own pain, when they saw how they were suffering together. Bill Shaw, a Protestant who grew up in the Unionist enclave of Sandy Row, said “I was 17 before I met a Catholic.” It wasn’t until Bill met “Sean,” a Catholic, at their workplace, that he began to see that Catholics were human beings, that the two of them just wanted to have a pint together and meet girls. Yet every night, after their pint, they each took the bus back to their separate neighborhoods. How long it took for them to be able to reach outside of their enclaves, their boxes, and forge a friendship that would overcome those barriers, both internal and external.

The work of grassroots peacebuilding is fundamentally about relationship, and that the situation of war as we know it constantly ossifies our roles and identities as “national beings.” You know better than I how being a soldier narrows the possibilities of human being, human relation, despite the amazing opportunities that one may have with working with fellow soldiers and local people. I’d be curious to hear how you respond to this poem as a soldier, in particular, if that is not too difficult!


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It is interesting that you bring in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. In some way, it is the ability of Whitman’s “Song” to embrace everything that gives it a claim to the status of scripture in my mind. (My mother always recited bits of the Song when I was a kid, the most important part for me being, of course: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / {I am large, I contain multitudes.}” I took that as permission to be everything.) The embrace of contradictions is at work in abu ghraib arias as well … in a way that brings to light contradictions that are maybe talked about but, usually, talked over at the same time. For instance, in the “(echo /ex/)” sections, which I absolutely love, we read:

of my clothes, even my underwear. They gave me women’s

underwear, that was rose color with flowers in it and they put the

bag over my face. One of them whispered in my ear “today I am

going to fuck you,” thy name shall be and he said this in Arabic.

Whoever was with me experienced the same thing … cuffed my

hands with irons behind my back to the metal of the window, to

the point that my feet were on the ground and I was hanging there

for about five hours just because I asked about the time, because I

wanted to pray … took all  my clothes and took the underwear and

he put it over my head. After he released me I don’t know if they

When I am reading, I distill this section down to read: They gave me / my / ear // thy name shall be / hanging there / over my head.” Which is two acts: an act of torture and a magical act of naming/claiming (or, possibly, an act of creation or blessing) all at once. It is biblical. And the grayed out text is a sort of whisper, the reality of now that is … well, the instantiation of the perverse scripture … which really may not be perverse at all, when compared to scripture. But, yes, I agree, there is a danger of fetishizing horror by taking it into the holy. (The danger of justifying the horror or calling it mere nature … the danger of anything that gives some sort of moral permission or necessity to the torturer.)

The arias tap into a perversion at the heart of holiness, though, which I think is what just a minute ago I was suggesting is acknowledged but talked over. You mentioned, for example, the idea of Graner as a sort of Obscene Father and the Abu Ghraib transcripts as a sort of perverse version of Genesis, an astoundingly visionary insight, by the way! You see Genesis in those transcripts because Genesis is there in those transcripts, I think. I mean, there is the section quoted earlier where an Iraqi sees himself “on the face / of the deep               And the darkness he called Night” after enduring sixty-seven days of torture, a clear reflection of the world before creation, as if the Iraqi is forced out of himself into a mystical state where he sees as God saw. These mirror images return again and again. There is Noah’s flood: “G        pouring / water / screaming  ‘my heart’ / And the waters shall          flood / all flesh.” And Creation, of course, though a sick creation, a nightmarish, disfigurement: “on the third day                         G         came / made me           no clothing / wires on my fingers                         penis.” And so many other echoes, not just of Genesis but the Gospel story of re-creation/redemption.

Strangely, the perversion of scripture is in some way natural to scripture, so that is one of the ways I see the arias questioning holiness, goodness. The perversion is highlighted and interrogated openly. At first, I read these poems as a conflict between two sets of values, Christianity and the American soldier, but then I asked myself, what conflict? Isn’t this an updated scripture? I mean, how twisted are the stories of both the Old and New Testaments, right? The sacrifice of Isaac, a commandment to wipe out the Canaanites, psalms celebrating the murder of infants, and on and on. Familiar stuff, but it is, I think, at the heart of the notion of holiness. The sublime. I am thinking of Kant here right now, his notion of the sublime, that formless object that threatens to overwhelm us.

Hass’s absolutely astounding poem is definitely relevant here. We celebrate soldiers. In America, we have celebrated the Spartan quality of our special operations soldiers. I know that in the army, General Lee is nearly a god … or at least a saint. And the movie “The Last Samurai” idealizes the samurai as grounded in Buddhism. But what are soldiers in reality and what is war? No one seems to want to really answer those questions. Our answers are usually something like the movie “Black Hawk Down,” a wonderful movie that skips over guys going home and beating their wives or killing themselves. “The Last Samurai” ignores the thuggish nature of the samurai as a mercenary. And General Lee … well, he said it best: “True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another.” Or, more gently, war and soldiering is:

Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

War is disgusting. The people involved in it are often disgusting. (You see I avoid the word evil.) War and politics (and scripture/holiness) transform everything unrecognizably. I mean, we want to justify our wars, call them moral, but I am not sure how morality applies. War is a sublime, formless object.

One final thought was how your Soviet poems have a different aesthetic than these Abu Ghraib poems. The arias are more immediate, felt and horrifying, and the Soviet poems of yours that I have read are moving but also meditative. I am not sure if that is due to how I came to the poems or if that is part of the poems themselves. I do find a subtle and overwhelming meditative/reflective quality in the Abu Ghraib poems, as they reach so deeply into religion, but it is something the Abu Ghraib poems make me work for.


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Dear Micah,

Speaking of contradictions, I knew the poem was emerging when the arias found their “other half” — that is, the words of the Standard Operating Procedure and of US soldiers. Before that, I’d focused entirely on the language of the prisoners, which was the big gap in the mainstream narrative of Abu Ghraib; yet I wanted to pull back a little, as in that photograph from the Abu Ghraib scandal where Ivan Frederick is visible either clipping his fingernails or looking at a camera, in the foreground of the picture where the infamous picture of the hooded detainee is standing on a box with wires attached to his hands and feet. When that conversation could be seen — between official procedural discourse, soldier testimony, and detainee testimony — something larger emerged; it felt less like a poem of witness and more like a document of the war, writ large.

When I think of perversion at the heart of holiness, I return to Job. In this rather unusual text, God essentially makes a wager with Satan that Job will maintain his faith despite whatever suffering may befall him. So Satan takes away Job’s family, wealth, friends, and physical health, stripping him of all worldly things. Job cries out in protest against his plight to God, and God’s answer is something like, I am mightier than you, mightier than can imagine. Sound familiar? In other words, there is no ethical argument for Job’s suffering. Job does not “deserve” it. It’s one of the most frightening and strange moments in the Bible, right up there with God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son, or to the people to commit genocide in the Book of Samuel. This is a very human God, the flipside of Graner.

Which is why being a soldier puts one in the most difficult moral space; one is both Abraham and Isaac, at the same moment; the obedient one who listens to his commanding officer, and the one put in harm’s way. And sometimes, that soldier is also God, in those moments where no God is.

The immediacy of the incommensurable, mediated and yet unmediated, is what I was after in the arias. I wanted the reader to feel very strongly both the ways in which this text was a constructed thing, a borrowed thing, at the same time that it was marked by a human voice, struggling against all “mediations.” My poems about living in Russia were “cooked,” to use Lowell’s distinction, in a kind of distance that took years to develop, but perhaps at times they lost some of the raw wildness, the tangled wilderness, of what it meant to live there at a time of economic implosion and societal crisis.


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Dear Philip,

I did actually pick up on the SOP sections as the flip-side of the (echo /ex/) parts of the arias. The violence of the (echo /ex/) sections definitely stands in opposition to the care demanded by the SOPs … care that is given to a book or a dead body, but not a person. For instance, we read in the SOPs:

thereby reducing the friction over searching

                        will avoid handling or touching

            may or may not require a language

pages in an upright manner (as if reading


like sandalwood                     

the whole body                                   a prayer                                 
                                                                                    folded .

These sections are wonderful in how they show a concern with perfection on the part of the military couched in striking, sometimes musical and sometimes strange language. At the same time, the concern with perfection seems proper to art and ethics, but is instead given to the handling of a book, a mere object, or a dead body, more than likely the body of someone killed by the same forces handling the dead man.

Another way the SOPs seem to operate in the arias is that they give us a glimpse of the conflicting directives given to soldiers. So, in “MUSLIM BURIAL” a body is a prayer arising out of … well, so much … out of the way the body is handled, or maybe the way we handle the body is the sort of prayer we make … or the body is a prayer in its amazing folded geometry, geometry found in its chemistry, its DNA. In the same poem, the same Standard Operating Procedure that directs a soldier to handle a body as a prayer, I find a cold diagram of how to prepare a burial trench … not at all prayer-like. The diagram is concerned with perfection, but perfection of action. A coldly formal perfection, maybe, that confuses the ethical description of “the whole body [as] a prayer” with the outward acts of prayer.

“Handling the Koran” also questions the conflicting rules soldiers must work under. It is almost as if the poem is organized in conflicts. The first line, “avoid handling or touching” challenges the last lines, “handle     as if it were fragile / delicate art”. This repeats throughout the poem, so we get “to open the one cover with one hand” impossibly set against using “two hands at all times”, and the lines “in an upright manner (as / if reading” are immediately followed by the order to ignore the text of the Koran: “if reading / not every page is to be.”

Finally, there is the strange way the Koran is treated both with reverence and as an object of ridicule or danger. So we read, again from “Handling the Koran,” that soldiers are to “avoid handling or touching / a language specific.” And earlier on, in “Searching the Koran,” which implies the Koran is either being interrogated or is a source of intelligence regarding the enemy, we learn that “handling or touching / may or may not require a language / to / open” and that “the book is / contours or protrusions / binding / the binding.” That is, the Koran is not a piece of culture to be appreciated and understood. It is a mere object made of leather and paper and ink. We can ignore reaching beyond our own view of the world, via Arabic and the Koran, and remain safely in our own language, English. So, again, while the SOPs demand perfect care, they also deny the value of what is handled.

In all of these contradictions, I continually wonder, what ethic? What ethic guides our actions in war? Is there such a thing? I mean, if we go back to the notion of the sublime as a formless object that threatens to overwhelm us, then, in some way, war and its perversions are not perverse on their own level. And that is why I thought I was too close to justifying disgusting acts by bringing up the sublime earlier. But I do question what it means to talk about ethics at the level of war … as I think the arias do, in how they confront the difficulty of making sense of the perversion of holiness (that is to say, the difficulty of making sense of the notion of holiness as perverse and perverting the notion of holiness).

And maybe that is where your idea of witness or an account of war comes in. That is, the account is all that can be given. But then, where is the value of protest or opposition? (Maybe the value isn’t in the protest at all. Where is it, though? Or is that the wrong question to ask when discussing the poetry of witness and the poetry of protest.)


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Dear Micah,

I find myself rediscovering the poems through your readings of them; it’s as if I were some sort of mole snuffling through the dirt of the words, and suddenly you open up a light into the tunnel, and I’m blind and I can see all at once.

That the poems have become a way to ask the questions — about ethics in war — seems to me the gift of a thoughtful and ethical reader, since too many of our conversations about poetry tend to reduce poetry to a series of language games or political gestures. When I was in Belfast with the peacebuilding class, a suddenly heated conversation blew up after our visit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the renamed police force (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had a history of being Unionists who committed crimes against Catholics in the North). One student, an ardent supporter of Irish independence and fan of Michael Collins, argued that during the independence movement, it was “acceptable” to order the killing of police. Another student, the wife of a police officer, was appalled, and called him out on it. One of the faculty entered into the fray, and argued that “it is never acceptable to kill anyone.” The situation devolved from there, most of it relating to the intensity of a day in which we spent thinking through what peace might look like from inside a Crimestopper armored police vehicle. I think basically my colleague was right, though his phrasing sounded as absolutist as the student sounded relativist. How can we not be disturbed by the killing of another human being? Can we ever say that it is “acceptable”? We may cede to its necessity, perhaps, but to call it “acceptable” feels like a sudden plunge into rationalization. We could talk about Just War Theory — and we have, for centuries — but we need new paradigms, such as Just Peacemaking, which aims to manage conflict before it comes to killing, and to adjudicate killing within the modes of restorative rather than retributive justice. It’s all easy for me to say, however, from the safe distance of civilian life. Basically, we as citizens have failed our soldiers, when we have failed to brake imperial power, when we rationalize wars of convenience rather than wars of necessity.

Which leads to your question about whether poetry is the right medium to protest, to resist, and whether the witnessing function is in some sense more apt for poetry. I spent an entire book — Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront — exploring these questions, articulating a series of arguments for poetry as a mode of resistance, and a mode of resistance which is most fruitful when in dialogue with the peace movement and when it contains in itself a vision beyond resistance. I hesitate to boil it all down to a couple sentences, but that is a start. The question of efficacy is a torment, because we know of the seemingly-inexorable powers of imperial war — but ours, at the bare minimum, is to refuse to justify the unjustifiable. As Herodotus wrote in his History, I write to “prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion,” striving not only to chronicle what has happened, but also articulate the contours and fleeting images of a more just, peaceful, sustainable world. Naomi Shihab Nye articulated this vision of belatedness and hope well in her poem “Jerusalem”: “it’s late but everything comes next.”


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Apologies for taking so long to write back. Family visited and everything was pushed to the side and then I was playing catch up on every project, which means everything was neglected.

So I have been thinking about my original reactions to the poems in arias and your last note, especially your discussion of the heated debate between the student who saw it as “acceptable” to order the killing of police officers and the professor who declared killing is never acceptable. In some ways this same debate is present in me and in the arias. In “The Blues of Javal Davis,” you write: “stay open about drawing an opinion ████ / ████████ from / the comforts of your living.” And I often sympathize with Davis’s sentiment … I mean, things we do in war are very different from what we would find acceptable in day-to-day life. And we can’t have war without those usually unacceptable acts, regardless of what people seem to believe regarding just war. (Or, at least, that is my take. We can’t expect people to act like gentlemen when they are focused on dismembering each other.) Normally unacceptable acts are acceptable in times of war, assuming war is ever justified. QED. At the same time, when I was reading the arias for the first time, I was taken in by the mixing of the victims’ statements with the ancient, religious language, but stumbled when I came across the blues sections. I think I read through “The Blues of Lane McCotter” as I would any other poem, taking in the multiple layers of meaning or ways of reading, thinking about how interesting it is that terms are blacked out but easily inferred from the context, reflecting on the ridiculousness of that sort of redaction. But when I read the Javal Davis poem, I thought about how stupid his character is …even though he is a real person. I was offended by him and his lame attempt at self-justification through the statement that others simply don’t understand, as if that provides a justification rather than just shutting people off. I was offended by his argument that “CNN says we’re dumb / poor kids from Garbagecan USA / it didn’t turn out to be that way,” which, to me, indicated a complete lack of self-awareness, as Davis and the other soldiers at Abu Ghraib pretty much proved CNN correct. But I was also offended, at first, by the implication that those soldiers represented soldiers, the implication that soldiers lack any sort of depth or music, beyond their pathetic attempts at singing the blues.

The thing is, I see most soldiers in the way I objected to initially. I remember soldiers telling stories about their tours in Iraq, how one sergeant I worked with recalled looking out over a crowd of civilians during some protest and wishing he could pull the trigger of his .50 cal machine gun just so he could kill someone, or how another sergeant bragged about sabotaging a civilian’s truck out in the middle of the desert just because the truck matched the description of an insurgent’s vehicle. The soldier with the .50 cal even admitted he would have pulled the trigger if his partner would have done so first, which called to mind “The Blues of Lynddie England” and her completely unbelievable denial of any sort of responsibility, as if she had been hypnotized.

No one really talks about the beautiful little girl who was always outside Cedar (a base in Iraq) when we pulled in from our missions early in the morning. The mindset is all about killing and proving yourself. But that is what war is. If I tell guys I thought the desert was beautiful or that really all I wanted to do was practice my Arabic (which didn’t happen much at all), they always look at me as if I lost something.

That is “The Blues of Joe Darby,” I guess. Or the corollary to Joe Darby’s blues. The military is rigged against anyone trying to live out the ideal of the gentleman soldier. Joe Darby was outed and his life put at risk by the same Secretary of Defense who is supposed to enforce the regulations that Darby was attempting to adhere to. That is the way military life and ethics are structured. If your friend shoots into a crowd, you are expected to do so … or at least, you are expected not to say anything. At best, you kick his ass later on for being a hothead. (I often thought about what I would do if my guys stepped over the line. I think it would have been easier to kill them than to turn them in. Luckily it never got that far, although some guys did get too twitchy for my own moral comfort when civilians got too close.) But if someone turns against the unit!

Actually, I was talking to an army doctor about these problems not all that long ago, saying that I hated working with these kinds of people, that I was tired of their view of the world. The response was similar to what you write in “The Blues of Ken Davis”: “they say talk to a chaplain / they say it’s all your perception / it’s how you perceive.” But I did not have any sort of glamorous notion of America’s Army when I joined … I just wanted to “live the dream” as we say. War was neither good nor bad to me … it just was. What I objected to wasn’t due to a great shift in my moral perceptions, as the doctor suggested in an attempt to explain away my disgust with the people I worked with. My objection was to the contradiction between the quality of the people in the military as well as those in charge of it and the (probably impossible) ideal of the gentleman soldier who goes out to fight a war, regardless of its causes, in a way that demonstrates courage and a concern for honest humanity and a fascination with all aspects of life.

So my initial reading of the arias was a mixture of fascination at the uses of found texts and the melding of different sorts of language with a confused set of reactions that both recognized the depravity of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and their all-too-common view of “the enemy” as well as a knee-jerk desire to somehow complicate soldiers and defend them. With everything I have said, though, I do think there may be a way of deepening our view of soldiers. I just don’t think it is going to be done by pretending they are morally outstanding people. They are just people. Maybe the way to complicate them is to see how ordinary people behave in times of war. Ideals just don’t have a place?

I just now noticed that I haven’t said anything about poetry as witnessing …which is something I think I definitely want to tackle, but in another email.


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I imagine that this last message had been working its way out of you for a little while, and I’m glad for it. It’s funny, because at the same time that it enraged you for its moral relativism and excuse-making, “The Blues of Javal Davis” worked aesthetically and ethically for me as a kind of admonishment, to slow down my judgment, to remind myself that I should be careful that my personal distance from the atrocity of Abu Ghraib didn’t become a shield from the morally complex position in which soldiers found themselves, and the range of responses to that moral complexity.

There was, in addition to Darby — the kind of classic voice of conscience — a man named Joyner (the “J” of the poem), who would give a blanket to prisoners who had been stripped or beaten the night before. Joyner didn’t blow the whistle as Darby had, but he did act humanely toward these prisoners. But could he have gone further? Maybe. But he knew, as Darby invariably knew, that crossing the line of silence would expel him forever from the brotherhood, the brotherhood and all its conditional love.

So there are Darbys and Joyners and Davises and Graners, and each ultimately has to live with what they did. Some have had to serve time in prison. And of course, as we all know, there are the unnamed operatives who are culpable for acts not only of torture but also of murder who have borne no punishment, because they have acted with the blessing of the state. And of course, this problem is not new to the Iraq War; Achilles’s rage at Agamemnon’s abuse of power is what opens The Iliad.

Maybe you will be the writer to continue to complicate our vision of what soldiering is like, in ways that we civilians can only imagine!

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I will definitely add more to the conversation in the next week. I am off to Minnesota for a week, so I will once again be moving slowly but I will have time in the evenings to write. Just to be sure, the response as a soldier was honest but does not reflect any sort of unfriendliness to you or your work. I just wanted to be clear about that as email and not actually having met each other in person can make these sorts of exchanges strange.


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No offense taken, truly and earnestly. If war, and the conditions of war, do not enrage, perplex and cause us grief, then it is not war. And if the poetry of war does not enrage, perplex, and cause us grief, it is not truthful!


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So I want to shift gears slightly for a bit, though I am sure we will someday have to come back to the gut-based reactions to the arias. I want to look for a bit at the arias as a purely aesthetic work … if that is possible. You discussed the notion of witness and finding the Abu Ghraib transcripts as a way to “slip inside the prison.” But the poems are not just an act of reporting, given the haunting but beautiful text and linguistically layered form. Since the texts are documents that are there as a witness on their own … why poetry? Is there something to the act of making use of a text, juxtaposing it with other texts, cutting the text strategically that does something more? Are there aesthetic or theoretical motivations for the choice of texts you worked with that can be separated from the moral/ethical concerns of the arias?


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I came to this textual strategy as a result of my years of researching war and war resistance poetry (in Behind the Lines). My increasing interest in the employment of documentary materials in poetry (see my article, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy” at the Poetry Foundation website) came partly from the exhaustion of the lyric — or its misemployment by civilian poets distant from the scene of battle.

I’m thinking in particular of Denise Levertov’s struggle to find an adequate position from which to write about the Vietnam War, and the concomitant resistance to it. In Behind the Lines, she becomes a figure of the Romantic excesses of the New Left’s relationship to the Vietnamese struggle. In short, while she was a fine poet, and wrote some important antiwar poems, she also wrote a number of poems that were bad in all the ways that antiwar poems can be bad — self-righteous, dichotomous (“us” / “them”), blood-lusting, unbelievable, naively idealizing, etc. But one poem she wrote during the Persian Gulf War, “News Report,” always stuck with me, for its cut-up of a news story about the mass burial of living Iraqi soldiers holed up in a trench. I saw in poems like that, and of course in Reznikoff and Rukeyser, an acknowledgment of the distance and mediatization that marks most peoples’ experience of war, while still acting as a kind of witness.

One of my arguments about documentary poetry is from Muriel Rukeyser’s notion of a poetry that “extends the document,” — that gives the factual another life. I would not know about the Gauley Bridge mining disaster without Rukeyser’s great “Book of the Dead,” nor would I have been introduced so aesthetically, so empathetically to Steve Biko were it not for Peter Gabriel, or Bloody Sunday without U2, or the Mothers of the Disappeared without Sting (yes, sadly, ironically, Sting contributed to my political awareness!). Perhaps I’m mixing pop and politics, documentary and songs too fluidly here, since documentary poetry is often considered part of the Objectivist tradition, in which one allows for the language to speak for itself, almost in a machine-line way, and popular music is such an affect-laden mode. Yet what each can do is that they direct our attention to other voices not always given the stage in our grand narratives.

Perhaps the most notable difference in the arias from typical documentary poetry (if there is such a thing) is in the attention to affect. All documentary poetry engages in revision, juxtaposition and collage. But the arias are pretty busy, with cut voices (the tortured), more fully-syntaxed voices (the soldiers, mostly), operational legalese (the Standard Operating Procedure Manual), Biblical quotes (almost entirely from Genesis). I kept moving from minimalism (typical of documentary verse) to maximalism (where noise was turned up to eleven). My hope is that the mixing and mashing work to cumulative effect, and not too much to the loss of those Iraqis voices, already contorted, translated, and subject to loss. The ethical concern remains part of the equation, attempting to leap the abyss between appropriating (the modernist “great artists steal” mantra) and representing/signifying/crying out (the postmodernist desire to open the voice to polyvocality).

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So while we are having this conversation I am also working my way through your book Behind the Lines. It is quite informative to hear you discuss your theoretical background together with Behind the Lines as a resource. The arias are so layered, it is a very satisfying experience … although I have to confess that I struggle to keep up with the conversation. 

Levertov, as you mentioned, is viewed as an example of the failed use of lyrical poetry as a mode of resistance in Behind the Lines. I take it, though, that you view her as evolving and learning from her earlier mistakes, attempting to rebuild her poetry in light of the “dictum that the best war poems in a television age foreground the very mediatization of the imagery of war.” The fragmentation in your work is also an attempt to take that same dictum seriously, I think, maybe learning from Levertov and pushing forward to give “the factual another life.” I mean, as noted before, the documents you are drawing from are there in the public domain for anyone to read. But you are certainly giving new life to them by reworking them and highlighting deeper possibilities of meaning vis-à-vis our beliefs regarding the place of religion, ethics and individuals in the face of war (and don’t let me forget to add the life you give to the documents by uncovering their interesting lyrical possibilities). To say it another way, those documents taken separately tell us about ancient Middle Eastern religion and law, legal and practical principles guiding US military intelligence, or the testimony of a “single” horrific event, Abu Ghraib. But separated in that way for the purposes of presentation and digestion, which they are not in reality, the full challenge of Abu Ghraib goes unrealized … the result of a “few bad apples,” maybe even the effect of bad policy, but never a reflection of an entire corrupted culture. Whether that corrupted culture is limited in its scope to that of the military and the war or is national (the United States) or worldwide in reach is unclear. But the critique is there.

I think the use of language and collage throughout the arias is also interesting in that the cutting up and rewriting/remixing of texts allows that, as the arias say themselves, “the meaning of some words / further clarify / names.” At the same time, the arias “don’t translate proverbs word for word/don’t translate poems word for word” as they work “to translate letters, not / analyze them” by a method that “clearly and legibly   skips lines / as close as possible / to the original.” (An absolutely brilliant formula, by the way.)

So maybe I am off here, but part of the challenge of the arias as I read them is how we treat linguistic and cultural artifacts (and I mean this in an aesthetic rather than ethical sense). The method of the arias is to take words as building blocks, bits of syntax rather than semantic units … and the meaning arises after the bits are brought together as a whole. The prohibition not to translate word for word and the demand to skip lines are taken from one of the SOP sections of the arias, so it reflects a practical, military-oriented vision of meaning and language as a set of tools to communicate actionable intelligence, which may be hidden within poems and proverbs, while the culture in its literary and linguistic forms is unimportant, irrelevant. That same set of rules at work in the SOP is also at work in the construction of the arias, but to a different effect, and that is the challenge. Where the SOP’s intent is “to translate letters, not / analyze them,” the arias wish to uncover meanings through working to “further clarify / names.” But the arias must first approach pieces of language as building blocks rather than bits which are meaningful on their own and untranslatable from one context to another. Which is, maybe, one of the fascinating aspects of language that poetry has worked to uncover … language is at once completely void of fixed meaning and able to be reworked almost as we see fit as well as forcing itself and its meanings on us as we see in the many-layered, polyphonic arias.

I hope that is intelligible … at least a little. I am off to Austin for a week, but I hope to hear from you soon.


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Your reading of the arias is precisely what I hoped for. And your distinction — that the Standard Operating Procedure is centrally concerned with “actionable” intelligence, rather than something else — is the knife that separates the kind of thinking required of military intelligence and the intelligences outside of its ken. I’m reminded that my father, while teaching counterinsurgency after his active service in the Vietnam War (1967–1968), focused on the writings and theories of Ho Chi Minh; it was critical, the US counterinsurgency theory went, to know the enemy … in order to win the war. Not to know the enemy to know the enemy, but to anticipate the enemy’s future moves.

I’m struck, to move obliquely from the point, that in the warrior tradition, there often was a great deal of respect for the “worthy” enemy, who demonstrated courage and nobility, because defeating such an enemy would make the victory more honorable (and even defeat, perhaps, less dishonorable).

With modern war, technowar, bureaucratic drone war, insurgency/counterinsurgency, it would appear that the enemy is reduced to body counts (or worse, not even worthy of counting). Similarly, the term “actionable” in this context means something that one might use for defeating the enemy. What is the opposite of “actionable”? The useless? The beautiful?

Actually, the original title of the arias was “   u   r  arias.” On this version’s title page, the “u” and “r” are printed in the “bold” font, the rest is in “ghost” grayscale font; for me, the poem has always been a mirror, in which we see ourselves. The way we look, and how we read, and what we do, reflects back upon us, whether we like it or not. We always hope our reading and our action moves us outside of ourselves, but does it? Also, I hoped to echo the idea of an “ur text” — all of the documents to which the poem points — which itself points back to the original Ur, one of the earliest cities of human civilization. As long as we have had writing, we’ve had laments about war, beginning with the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna’s “Lament to the Spirit of War.” Perhaps Thomas Merton was right: “that which is oldest is most young and most new. There is nothing so ancient and so dead as human novelty … It is the very beginning itself, which speaks to us.”