Illness, lyric, and total contingency
Brian Teare in conversation with Jaime Shearn Coan
Editorial note: What follows is an edited transcript of PennSound Podcast #53, an October 30, 2015, conversation between Brian Teare and Jaime Shearn Coan. Teare and Shearn Coan discuss Teare’s book The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, described by Shearn Coan as a collection that imagines “how to language what is un-languageable.”
Teare, an assistant professor of English at Temple University, is the author of five books of poetry, most recently The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven and Companion Grasses, as well as a number of chapbooks. He also makes books by hand in Philadelphia for his micropress, Albion Books. Jaime Shearn Coan lives in Brooklyn, New York. His writings on dance and performance can be found regularly in The Brooklyn Rail. A PhD student in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY, Jaime teaches at Hunter College; his poetry chapbook, Turn It Over, was published by Argos Books in 2015.
This interview was recorded in the Wexler Studio at Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia on October 30, 2015, and was transcribed by Mariah Macias. You can hear the audio of this conversation here; click here to read Shearn Coan’s review of The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven in Jacket2. — Julia Bloch
Jaime Shearn Coan: So we’re discussing Brian’s new book, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, and the subtitle of the book is Reading Agnes Martin. I was wondering if we could just start by you telling us a little story about how you came to Agnes Martin.
Brian Teare: For a long time I owned the book — I see you have a copy of Agnes Martin’s Writings. I hadn’t really read it, you know — people had told me, or I had heard through the grapevine, that it was pretty great. And I hadn’t really made time for it, you know, the way you do, and so it was on my shelf for years. And then in 2009 I got really, really ill, and in that sort of chance kind of conjunction of things, like I was looking for something to read, you know, while I was in bed, slightly incapacitated, and I came across her essay in another book, actually, a book of artists’ writings. I came across “The Untroubled Mind,” and I immediately fell in love with it. In comparison to the rest of her essays, it’s, as you know, lineated and much looser in terms of its associative movement; it’s more like a poem. And I could not get enough of it. And it’s also pretty wacky. I mean, in terms of how it’s put together, and how it moves between image and then, you know, a really broad sort of argumentative discursive statement that posits a kind of truth. I was continuously startled by this kind of mix of imagery and argument and also the kind of looseness with which the text was constructed. And I was charmed, really charmed by it, and also quite comforted by it. I think because it was a time of my life in which I lacked a lot of certainty — I didn’t know what was wrong with me physically, I had very little access to healthcare, I think at that time my then-partner and I were kind of struggling with how I might get healthcare, you know, get access to it — it was nice to have this bossy, though slightly wacky, voice telling me shit. I found it comforting. Over time, once I read “The Untroubled Mind,” I took the Writings off the shelf, like the whole book of essays, and discovered that she had, you know, this kind of strange style that was this mix of advice to artists but then also like a kind of spiritual or wisdom literature. It was this odd mix, but definitely about a voice of authority telling you how to make art or how to live life or how to go about your business. And since I felt pretty clueless about all of that at the time, again I found [it] very comforting — I didn’t really know anything about her yet. I knew, obviously, from the context of the Writings and also the artists’ writings anthology that I had, I knew she was a visual artist. I saw her paintings in the Writings book. But I had never seen any of them in person. I didn’t really know anything about her. I didn’t certainly know anything about her mythos — like, desert-recluse person. I got really attracted to her certainty during a time for me of deep uncertainty, even if a lot of what she suggested I may do to, you know, make art or make life different than my life was, seemed impossible to me or slightly ridiculous, even. I was nonetheless really engaged with her as a wisdom figure. And the book, I think, kind of charts both my deepening understanding of her work as I come to engage with it, come to see it in museums, come to actually see the physical objects and experience them — which, again, I think everyone will say there’s nothing like seeing them in person; a reproduction just doesn’t do anything to convey what they’re actually like. And in her case, that’s really profoundly true. This book charts this deeper engagement with her as an actual artist and her practice and this hugely dedicated practice of a lifetime, essentially, and really, the second half of her life, dedicated, as she said, to making horizontal lines.
I also did research in the UPenn archives and read letters around the ICA exhibition, like her first major exhibition, and so [I] got to know her a little bit through that. And there were a lot of drafts. […] That was also the exhibit that sort of started the habit of always exhibiting her work in the context of her words — and that was very deliberate on her part, that was something she really wanted. So my relationship to her deepened and got more complex and also, therefore, more ambivalent over time. Especially because my illness deepened, my engagement with trying to heal myself deepened, and a lot of tensions emerged from my own attempts to heal myself and my own path toward that. [I began to feel that] her ideas about what might work best for a life and art may be super great for an Agnes but weren’t particularly super great for a Brian. That was hard, actually. I think the book sort of records the difficulty of eventually parting ways with my attachment to her as a kind of teacher figure. A lot of it had to do with a different view on suffering, and what suffering is for or how to experience it. I thought she could really help me figure it out. I think my concern was trying to, as I say in various ways through the book, suffer less or suffer better — you know, or suffer in a way that isn’t quite suffering. I think part of the journey of the book is no one can help me do that, because, you know, that’s only something I can figure out.
Shearn Coan: You refer to Agnes as a teacher in the book. In some ways, [as] you mentioned, her teachings are about art, how to make art, but they’re also about how to live life, right? And those things are very tied for her, of course. I think, especially as you’re talking about writing about suffering, writing through suffering, it’s almost as if initially you turned towards Agnes as a teacher to learn how to get through the suffering, but the suffering ends up being a teacher at the same time, almost. I mean, there’s so much of this pushing and pulling against Agnes throughout the book that I think does shift in the three parts in a somewhat linear way, as moving away or pushing away stronger. But I think there are these cycles, too, throughout, some aspects of what she’s talking about continuing to resonate, perhaps more as a maker or an artist yourself.
Teare: Yeah, I like that. I think that’s true. Agnes the maker I have no arguments with, ever. I think she was an exquisite artist, and I love her paintings and drawings. Like, I love them. And even the ones I thought I didn’t love, I realized I just didn’t like them because I hadn’t seen them in person. Some of the things I treasured about the earlier work, like a more visible presence of her body and her hand in the making of them — I realized I just couldn’t see that evidence in later work because I didn’t see them in person, where there is more evidence of brushwork and her engagement with the canvas. So that aspect of her I never really doubted in the least. But I also think all of us kind of learn what we need as artists to do what we do, and because I was in so much crisis, I kind of thought I might be able to learn from her how to proceed forward. I think in engaging with her I did learn how to go forward, but it wasn’t because she had the solution; “oh, just move to New Mexico and live on a mesa and, like, build your own house, and you’ll be cool” wasn’t, obviously, in the realm of what I could do. But I also did try to track [her influence] over the book. In the first section, she’s called Agnes Martin. You know, very formal. And in the second section, she’s called Agnes. And then in the third section, she’s called the Teacher Agnes, which is also the moment when I begin to try to say goodbye to her, that moment when she most coalesces. Or when I recognize that she’s most coalesced into a teacher figure [and] also begin to realize I’m going to let her go, or need to let her go in some way. So I did try to narrativize it that way, but I think it was also the process of writing the book and putting it together that helped me articulate what had changed over time. […] My relationship to her work, my respect for it, my delight in it, my sort of absorption in it — that really, even now, hasn’t changed.
Shearn Coan: I think also, you’re reading her work in a particular moment in your life that is marked by illness, which is a very different context than, perhaps, other parts of your life. I wonder, actually, could we turn to a particular poem of yours that might ground us a little bit?
Teare: Yeah, this is in the second section. Part of the narrative of the book is encountering Western allopathic medicine, and having a real difficulty getting any kind of diagnosis from Western doctors about what’s going on. This is one moment in that narrative. And then, I should say, one of the ways that I engaged with her in the poems themselves is that they’re all titled by a phrase of hers from an essay or catalogue. So this is her title, or her sentence as my title.
[Teare reads “We are not the instruments of fate nor are we the pawns of fate we are the material of fate.”]
Shearn Coan: I love that last line [“I mean I’ve had to fashion a form that pains”]. I’m thinking about the fashioning of form in terms of the poems in this book and the way they map the pages. Could you maybe talk about how you’re thinking of them, or how you thought of them in composing them, in terms of how they are on the page?
Teare: You know, I think about them as really highlighting the gridded nature of the digitally typeset page. I was very deliberately trying to draw out of the page space a sense of griddedness that is actually always there in digital typesetting — which digital typesetting both relies on and covers over. Rather than in the kind of ways I’ve worked before, which you could say were derived from Charles Olson’s projective verse and thinking of the line as a measure of breath, and the syllable as like, a unit of the ear, and this sort of organic, body-based writing — interestingly for a book sort of obsessed with embodiment, this one actually doesn’t do that, to me, as a writer. I was way more interested in the I, and how taking advantage of the grid inside of the page could bring [forward] the griddedness of poems. In traditional prosody — not that these poems have super traditional prosody, but lineation, you know, stanzas, and the ways in which poems are little grids — especially more traditional lyric poems are little grids. You know, the sonnet is a grid. Period. Fourteen lines, ten syllables each line, five stresses — they line up, mostly. There’s a kind of warp and weft to how the vertical and horizontal axes of the poem line up. And so I was thinking, what if I start taking the grid inside of the unitary lyric and start pulling it apart and making sort of, like, quatrains and stanzas that touch on each other but don’t have to have a kind of syntactical, hypotactical relationship with each other? And yet are clearly related? That was my idea of, like, what might pain a reader or pain me. You know, stanzas don’t line up perfectly. The syntax doesn’t always match. I really thought […] the body of the poem doesn’t have to coincide with the meaning of the poem, and it’s actually the lack of coincidence between them that sort of creates that sense of pain or disequilibrium. And not every poem is like that, obviously. Some of them […] totally fit together. And when I read them aloud, it tends to smooth over the edges, obviously.
Shearn Coan: The compositional field is a preoccupation in the book, I mean in terms of thinking about Agnes’s work, and then your own struggle both of how to be in the page formally and then also just how to language what is un-languageable in terms of illness. I feel like you also pull out or create these compositional fields in your images, often — I’m thinking of the “white hospital bed / before I get into it.” The play between the figure and the fields appears as a preoccupation, or comes back in the book. And then also, another element of pain that is addressed formally, I think, is in the repetition, right?
Shearn Coan: Something that was very much part of my reading experience is the moving through poem after poem that’s in a very kind of agitated, frustrated state of how do I do this? Right? You shared with me a while ago a quote about seriality. Do you mind if I read that?
Teare: Oh no, it’s great.
Shearn Coan: It’s from Zoe Leonard writing about Agnes Martin’s work, and she’s distinguishing seriality from repetition. She writes, “I think of seriality as making or doing something from the same starting point but each time allowing for a different result. The starting impulse or the genesis of the gesture is the same, but as it travels through the material world, it is altered, rendered specific and particular.” I’m wondering about how you’re thinking about seriality in this book. We should start there.
Teare: I’m glad you brought that quote up. It occurs to me now, with you reading that, that what’s important to me is that I think what I desired was for pain to be serial. And it’s not. Pain is repetitive. That I think I claim many times throughout the book in various ways. And it would have been nice for pain to have gone somewhere else, you know, to have started from there and then — I’m talking, in particular, about physical pain. For me to be able to travel somewhere besides pain, more pain. And I think I even have that poem with that sort of thinking-back on my — “my sense of self returns // without illness / a casual traveler / book in hand.” And I feel like even that is that desire to be released from repetition and to be back in a place where movement is possible. I think you’re also right in bringing up that quote, and I think the poems were what enabled me to have some sense of seriality. I was always starting from this pretty similar physical or cognitive place — most of these were sort of written in the brief times when I had kind of enough of my wits about me that I could get something down.
Shearn Coan: Right. So, going back to that line about fashioning both the line, the form —
Teare: Fashioning a form that pains.
Shearn Coan: There’s a bit of a paradox that also emerges in these poems that I think is parallel to the push and pull with Agnes, around, on one hand, a rejection of Agnes’s idealism, pure abstraction, which kind of puts the body aside, and then allegiance to the body that includes pain. I actually want to turn to a poem.
Teare: Sure. Well, I think you’re right that [for] the Agnes I encountered through research and through the work through other people, in particular — you know, there is a great amount of denial of the body. Even in “The Untroubled Mind” there’s that whole discourse about hunger, about art is better hungry, you know, and she’s sort of — not that I’m anti-eating, but — then when you read some of the interviews with her gallerist, like, she did only eat, one winter, cheese and bananas for six months or something. She would go on these incredibly controlled, kind of ascetic diets, etc. So you know there does feel like on the one hand, there’s an incredible sort of presence; presence of the hand and of the body in her work is so there. But it’s given such a small space. And I think it was more the small space I was kind of objecting to in my own practice, that I couldn’t mimic. Even if I was creating these linguistic textures that can be abstracted in and of themselves, it’s not as though I wasn’t deriving them from embodied experience. Which includes pain. And that could be a generational thing. I think Zoe Leonard herself talks about [that] generation of women writers [and how] she is super invested — how Agnes doesn’t necessarily on the surface seem to fit in a kind of feminist discourse, because she never really talks about gender ever. And then even Jill Johnston has an essay about going to go visit her in the desert and there’s all sorts of knowing winks about lesbianism and past relationships, but also a lot of recognition that Agnes wasn’t a feminist, wasn’t, you know, part of that body-valorization kind of generation. So, you know, I feel like that’s my own sense of tension with her, too. It’s a generational one. I don’t feel it personally toward her as an antagonism, but I do sometimes, like if I’m trying to mimic her example or, like, take her advice, I’m a little bit like, hey, but you forgot this whole other thing not everyone can avoid.
Shearn Coan: Right, right.
Teare: Like the body.
Shearn Coan: Yeah.
Teare: Kinda huge.
Shearn Coan: Another of Agnes’s preoccupations […] is the importance of being alone. She certainly lived in that way. I went to a talk recently by Jennie C. Jones at Dia:Chelsea, and she brought up this article by Fenton Johnson, who invented this term “solitariness.” Or, no, it’s “solitaries,” it’s a genre of people who chose to live by themselves. There’s certainly a long tradition of this among artists and writers, but I think there’s something very attractive about turning to a text or a kind of life teacher or guru that’s really teaching about how to be with the self. That seems particularly important when dealing with illness. In this book, the speaker really feels, especially because of the lack of certainty and the inability to be diagnosed, an exaggerated solitariness that seems to be keeping him apart or separate in a way that does not feel chosen. Thinking about other works of yours that seem to be very much focused on the interrelationship both among the self and others and self and place, I was so struck in this book by this kind of vacuum feeling that also seems to be this blank page or blank canvas that’s very bare.
Teare: I’m glad that that came across. I mean, for me, illness was, especially when it was the worst and sort of the most chronic and the most undiagnosed, hugely isolating. I couldn’t always walk, I couldn’t always leave the house, I couldn’t — it was just on a practical, everyday level, difficult. And to encounter others. It was also really difficult to maintain friendships. One of the hardest things about having an undiagnosed illness is you can’t “prove it” to anybody. You don’t have a name for it. So there’s this weird way in which I got a little paranoid, and then I just thought, well, everybody thinks I’m faking or whining or, you know: why can’t anyone find out what’s wrong with me? I think I also did some level of self-isolation, but a lot of it, you know, was just the practicality of having to work and because I lived in the Bay Area for most of that time, having to work many jobs and also be incredibly ill. There just wasn’t a lot of time left over for much. I also think there is a lover figure in the book who just appears very briefly. And that was also a very deliberate choice in that my now ex-partner didn’t want to be written about, and so I definitely obeyed that desire because it felt — actually, it felt like the Agnes thing to do, which is to be like okay, guy, I will follow your rule. It also felt like the right thing to do for me. But I think also that, you know, in those poems where this person does show up, I have even those lines that are even now really hard for me: “What good will it do” — “what good / will it do to desire / what will do no good.” Even romantic love or sexual love or erotic experience seemed to not be able to really do anything or to help me in any way. You’re right that it’s something that my writing has historically been hugely invested in, and that it wasn’t a resource I could draw on for a lot of reasons. It’s true. It was one of the most isolating times of my life. […] After my first partner, Jared, died, because he died of AIDS, there was a cultural narrative. There were other people who had experienced it. There was a whole network, at that point, of literature, as well as people I knew who I could turn to who either knew what I was going through or were able to hold my experience in some way. Whereas having an undiagnosed, general systemic problem, I didn’t actually know anybody who was going through anything similar, so there wasn’t even a narrative. When you don’t have a narrative except “I’m fucking suffering,” there’s nothing. It’s hard to share. Because it would be what Elaine Scarry would tell us in The Body in Pain: other people’s pain is just so abstract that it cannot be shared, really. Nobody really can feel or have a true sense of what you’re going through. I definitely felt that way throughout this time […] a sense of isolation.
Shearn Coan: Because the illness is not named, so to speak, in the book, I wonder if you have any thoughts about it taking on a kind of allegorical nature, in terms of just — I mean, it does feel very of the air in terms of this general kind of not knowing what’s wrong paranoia — you know, not to abstract it necessarily, but I do actually feel like that the fact that there is no resolve at the end of the book, necessarily, does give the book this other layer in terms of [how] it can operate on these different levels. I think there is one poem that does use the phrase “late capitalism” —
Teare: Right, right, yeah.
Shearn Coan: — it does seem to be some acknowledgement of where we are. […] We are in a post-diagnostic moment in some ways. I mean, even if we can get back to the AIDS crisis, the different engagement with illness here is really interesting to me in terms of the kind of void. Although I do recognize the dangers in, you know, abstracting illness and metaphorizing illness.
Teare: I think your question points to lots and lots. I mean, first of all, I wrote almost all this book before I ever got a diagnosis, and then I did have to face the question of whether I would write that into the book or not. And it very quickly became clear to me that that would be a dumb idea […]. Just because you get a diagnosis doesn’t mean the suffering stops, and [it] doesn’t mean that I don’t actually have a chronic illness that I have to deal with every day, because that’s true, and that’s a different story, actually, than the one this book is interested in. So I didn’t want any sense of false resolution. People think once you can name it, oh it’s all fine, right, and I really wanted to avoid any sort of false sense of security, which is again what I think a diagnosis in the end can result in, especially for a chronic illness. Because I think the thrust of the book in the end is about coming to understand — I mean, it’s a very basic Buddhist truth, coming to understand suffering as our shared condition — the whole book is about trying to avoid suffering in the way that I was suffering. I feel the book comes to a place of, actually, what made me suffer more was trying not to suffer, you know, and struggling against the fact that this is just, whatever you want to call it, fate or my given lot or what have you, this is just where I am. Coming to accept where I was seemed harder, in the end. More of an achievement than getting a name for it and riding off into the sunset, which is more what our Western American sort of capitalist, end-driven society wants. You know, well, you’ve got the diagnosis now, you have a game plan, now you can do duh-duh-duh-duh, and it’s like, sort of but not really. So in that sense, yes, it is allegorized only in the broadest sense as a form of suffering. And the process of getting care is also allegorized in that political sense of understanding this is pre-Obamacare, though I would also point out that Obamacare wouldn’t necessarily obviate some of the struggles that I went through.
But, you know, it was a particular time economically and politically in our country when if you were uninsured and you had previous conditions, you literally just couldn’t get any health insurance. Period. At all. There was no healthcare available. I just happened to live in a city that had a public health assistance program that again was bare bones and super minimal and was not helpful, but it was something more than I could’ve had if I lived in Texas or wherever. So there is something about the politics of the era, about healthcare, in the book as well — but I don’t think I allegorized that part of it. I think that part of it is really particular. I would say it just couldn’t be more different than thinking about writing about AIDS or the AIDS crisis, though one of the poets who’s super important to me, Tory Dent, wrote really beautifully and sort of terrifyingly about being medicalized. And, you know, because of her gender, and because of the gendered nature of the antiretrovirals and the protease inhibitors, she suffered in a way that a lot of gay men didn’t. The ways she wrote about that experience, of the medicalization and all the illness that attended her time living with AIDS in particular, is really terrifying. I gained a lot of courage from that, but I didn’t feel they were in any way [similar] — other than in her final book, Black Milk, she does write from a sort of metaphysical, atheist point of view, and I really admired the way she did that, and sort of brought metaphysics into her picture in a way that was complicated and moving. But to me they seem so worlds apart, really, in terms of the politics and sort of shared communal narratives that are possible.
Shearn Coan: Towards the end [of The Empty Form], there’s more of an emphasis on healing, using or returning to Eastern medicine. And there’s a character archetype, the Healer. Could you speak about that movement either structurally or thematically?
Teare: At a certain point a friend of mine said, very helpfully, “You’re in a healing crisis, and you need help, and you’re not getting help, so you need to go see this person that I know.” And I will say that even though I’d done yoga and had been exposed to Eastern methods of healing and thinking about the body, I was pretty apprehensive, and I think it just was residual, being brought up Southern and Christian, and I just was, you know, what is this thing I know nothing about? What am I about to do? I was genuinely in a healing crisis, so I did go do it. It was because the Western medicine just hadn’t worked, and no one was helping me. Marintha Tewksbury, this acupuncturist and herbalist and body worker in San Francisco, was really willing to work with me super sliding scale, like super-duper sliding scale, and really saved my life in terms of the worst part of being ill, when I was really desperate. She was just really kind, and she’s an amazing body worker and an incredibly healing presence. She also gave me references of books to read [that addressed] my ultimately sort of racist misapprehensions of what I was doing — I couldn’t understand what Chinese medicine was, just my pure ignorance of what it actually, what the principles were — and the more I got to know Chinese medicine in particular, the more I was kind of, wow, this is everything that I agree with but didn’t know that I wanted in medicine. They treat you right away, you don’t wait for the test results. You know, like, your doctor talks to you, they listen to what you say, a lot of the treatment is based on what you say versus what your body is saying. And then also the ways in which Chinese medicine conceives of the body as part woven into the open system of the world, and that it’s incredibly porous and sort of open to the elements and sort of really responsive, rather than these little closed set of systems [where] you go to see this one person about your sinuses and you go see this other person about your elbow. In the context of Western medicine, [that approach] makes perfect sense, but in the context of Chinese medicine, it makes no sense whatsoever. I really appreciated suddenly someone kind of weaving my body back together and treating it like a system and, you know, advising me on food, like what to eat and any number of things. It gave me a different conception of what embodiment actually looks like, and one that seemed more congruent with my own sense of body. [It] gave me a really different way of thinking about healing and a healer’s relationship — you know, that a healer would touch you for so long, and that a laying on of hands or touch is like incredibly crucial to a lot of body work. And again they would not “wait” to treat you, but that it would be weird to go to a session with a Chinese medical doctor and you didn’t get treated that day. And granted, the treatments take longer, usually, than allopathic treatments to take effect, but you still get a sense of being engaged as a body and getting your healing systems working or at least jumpstarted right away. I was just incredibly moved by all of it, that it engaged so much of the healer in terms of listening and responding to your very particular body in a very particular moment. That seemed to me pretty miraculous when I felt like nobody could do that, like nobody could see my body, nobody could respond to it except with, like, sort of confusion. It just was such a kindness, it was such a compassion to me and just so different than anything I’d experienced. [The healer in the book is] mostly Marintha, but there are a couple of moments with the healer that is somebody else I saw when I got here [to Philadelphia], but it’s mostly her as a figure, because she was really powerful and just kind of shifted the dynamic with my own sense of suffering. It also gave me a sense of agency, that my body was active, and it wasn’t only actively working against me, whereas with Western medicine it felt like, we don’t get it, it’s not working […]. I was just sitting there, I was getting blood tests, no one was trying to wake my body up or sort of rebalance it in any way. So, yeah. It was powerful.
Shearn Coan: What you’re saying about being listened to, I mean, that’s certainly the opposite of, you know, the Western medical model. But also it just makes me think about when we come to teachers, which is often via reading, they can’t talk back to us. [Laughing.] And, I was actually just at a talk where this writer was talking about reading Eve Sedgwick as a young, blossoming, intellectual queer person, and the experience of just like being in your bed at night and reading and feeling so connected in this intense way, but that is a very listening, a very receptive way. And I’m so fascinated by how Agnes Martin, I mean, it’s still reading Agnes Martin all the way through, the subtitle of the book is Reading Agnes Martin — that doesn’t go away, even as there is this rejection. And I’m just thinking about the role of teachers and mentors in your life, and I noticed that the book as a whole is dedicated to Jean [Valentine], which I’d love to hear a little bit about. And then also each poem is dedicated.
Teare: Oh, not each every poem. But there’s maybe like fifteen or so. […]
Shearn Coan: And that’s at the back of the book that’s listed, along with many citations for lines that have been culled and woven into the poems. I wonder if you could talk about your relationship to mentors and also how that comes into the book.
Teare: That’s a great question. I mean, I’ll talk first about wanting to dedicate this book to Jean, because she’s someone whose work I think I’ve been reading for, I don’t know, most of my adult life, definitely most of my life as a poet. And I feel I’ve learned an immense amount from that work about writing a kind of metaphysical poem. Definitely about writing short lyrics. And this is one of my only books with poems this short — or it is the only book with poems this short. And so I felt like I really took up her challenge, or what I think of as her[s] — the challenge of her work to me, which is how does she make something so small so rich and so sort of deeply suggestive. And also how do you write so many of these poems and not just repeat yourself, which I thought — I think — is generally the challenge of the lyric. I think of Dickinson, I think of Keats, I think of Herbert. I think of these classic lyric poets, particularly in Herbert and Dickinson’s case, I think of, you know, sort of return to the theme again and again and again or form again and again and again. And a lot of the poets I love are these people who return to gestures again and again. So I wanted to kind of give myself permission to enter that terrain of repetition or seriality, depending — at that point, I don’t think I knew which it was. So is Dickinson a serial poet or a repetitive poet? These are good questions. I wasn’t thinking about that then. I think I was just more thinking about risking being repetitive. […] It actually hooks up really nice to the Zoe Leonard quote in that, you know, I began to realize that a metaphysical poetics does sort of always [repeat itself] the way that ritual sort of repeats itself, but may, à la Leonard, go somewhere different each time inwardly, even if outwardly the form is similar. I was interested in taking up that challenge of, like, what if I only have this one page? What if I only have a whole lot of borrowed language? And me trying to cobble it together with my own language. What if I keep doing this again and again; what will that do? Jean’s work was just a real goad in terms of its clarity, its brevity, its ability to be complex like in a really tiny space, and its ability, at least for me over however many years of reading it, to constantly be surprising, even though I might recognize certain of her signature moves. I still am, like, there’s always poems in every book where I’m just like, where did that come from? How did you get that? So there’s that.
And then I think the dedications are largely about friendships. That it’s the one way in which the book isn’t lonely. I actually asked a friend whether I should keep those dedications on the pages themselves or whether I should put them in the back. And my friend did say it made the book too cluttered and too confusing, like, what are all these names? Who are all these people? Some of them, or a lot of them, are poets, trying to connect their work to the poem, and like, what is that? I agreed with her, I felt like that seemed too much and I wanted the book to be cleaner than that. There was already enough going on. So for me it’s maybe more for my friendships with those people, but that those poems took place because of something in the friendships, you know, it wouldn’t have, either because of their work, the poems themselves, or because of their actual friendships in time and space — all of them kind of evoked something. And so it’s a way of honoring those connections. Some of them are like, one of them is to the healer, Marintha, and my therapist, you know. There are healers in there as well. I mean I love, I do feel Eve Sedgwick actually does have that amazing capacity to speak to one very directly even though, you know, allegedly she is like an academic critic, and how can her work do that because academic criticism doesn’t speak to one’s soul? But I think she’s one of those people who absolutely does, partially because it’s so beautifully written.
Shearn Coan: And I think also because she’s writing about being affected herself as a reader.
Teare: Yeah, yeah, totally. She is one of the people on the list of stolen lines — but a lot of those, again, are definitely a record of my engagement with various thinkers and various texts and definitely mentored by a lot of them, either because of them being about Eastern or Chinese medicine and my not knowing anything about it, and so getting a real sense of that from them, or Buddhist texts that, again, I didn’t have a lot of sense of before I started going into Chinese medicine. There are engagements with actual bodies of literature, bodies of thought, that I wouldn’t have come to any other way, and that I do think of as mentoring my thought, mentoring my way into the poems. Mostly I honored them by stealing from them.
Shearn Coan: Well, I find it very pleasurable as a reader to encounter these lists — and you generally include them in your books in this way — because I get to see you as a thinker and a reader and a researcher, and it adds this other layer for me that’s actually really enlivening.
Teare: Once my therapist actually got sort of, I don’t know, jealous? Mad? That I read this [Donald] Winnicott essay and had this huge kind of, what seemed to me at the time, though of course I can’t remember it now, epiphany about something in my life. And it was like she finally understood what role reading had for me, and it was hard for her, I think, to see that it was so — I go because I need help, and then I go because I’m hungry for connection. […] Maybe it’s a little bit like therapy, in that when you read you both listen and feel listened to, though it’s sort of mysterious how you feel listened to by a book. But one does, if it’s the right book. And so I do deeply crave that kind of intimacy that’s really interior and very quiet. I think that’s also there, that sense of engagement and kind of both honoring those kinds of engagements and connections but also recording them, you know, trying to get them into the poems, because they’re a crucial matrix, often, for the poems themselves.
Shearn Coan: In terms of the titles for the poems, you said earlier that most of them are taken from Agnes’s writings or titles of paintings. In trying to think about the relationship between the title and the poem, sometimes it seems almost like they’re just kind of talismanic objects or chance operation type of things. I’m wondering, how did they work together for you?
Teare: There’s always some connection for me, although I agree with you that sometimes it’s pretty slant, or like, if you ask me, how about that one? I would be like, I don’t really know why. Maybe there was a stanza I cut out or something that was a more direct response to it. But no, they all began as fairly direct lines between the body and the text, and a lot of them I collected because they began as talismanic objects, like they had some kind of energy for me, and I liked them. Or I found them really funny or I found them really absurd or something. Or just like, oh Agnes, God, are you kidding me? Or others of them I found really moving and totally deeply true. But I was totally fine letting it be slant or not quite obvious or letting there be a lot of play between title and poem in some instances. And then others of being really tight. I don’t mind that so much. But you’re right, they’re not all — some of them seem pretty wack at this point. [Laughing.] I think they’re funny. I think often when that disconnect is there, I think that’s often more for me about somehow the poem’s a punchline on the title, you know, because some of them are so outrageous.
Shearn Coan: And that’s why we love Agnes.
Teare: Yeah, yeah, no, it’s totally true.
Shearn Coan: I wonder, would it spoil everything to read the last poem?
Teare: No, I think that’s really great — to talk about that is a great place to end. I love this poem. It’s still one of my favorite poems, I almost feel, that I’ve ever written. It just makes me so happy.
[Teare reads “When you come to the end of all ideas you will still have no definitive knowledge on the subject.”]
Shearn Coan: It’s beautiful.
Teare: Thank you.
Shearn Coan: It reminds me, too, that this book is also engaging with ekphrasis, right?
Teare: Oh, yeah.
Shearn Coan: With a very light touch, I’d say. But it feels like a beautiful welcoming in of Agnes and a kind of acceptance of the same moment of just kind of letting her go.
Teare: Yeah. And I think for me it was really crucial — because I thought the book was done. I thought I had finished with the poem before that ends [with the line] “form empties itself / on its way to heaven.” And I was like, oh, the title, it all clicks, that’s nice. And maybe it was a little too tidy, but it’s Agnes, so tidy’s not that bad. But then I really just had this moment of what I would call genuine epiphany, where — and again, I think engaging with the lyric, you know, I’m of the generation where we were taught that the dumbest thing you could ever want for a poem is an epiphany, right, especially at the end. Very, very bad. Don’t do it. You’ll be cast out. I think this was me sort of taking that moment back, or trying to have one that works, in that I had this moment of realizing — I was thinking actually about Rilke and I was thinking about the end of one of his Duino Elegies, where “[a] happy thing falls.” He talks about the sort of surprising feeling of [how] we think of falling as a sad thing, and happy things are supposed to rise. So there’s this kind of paradox: what is a happy thing that falls? For me it was kind of the same, in that I was like, what would illness without falling ill be? You know, like, is there an illness that rises or that isn’t conceived of as a fall? And I realized all along I’d been kind of in this Christian mindset, you know, in terms of illness as a fall from grace, blah blah blah. And that is one of the things that Buddhism gave me, as like, hmm, no, actually you’re in a condition of total contingency all the time, and illness is just one of those manifestations of that contingency and ephemerality. Attaching to this idea of ability or illness or health — any of these could vanish at any moment. I had just realized: what if I don’t fall ill? What if I’m just ill? And that tiny shift changes the theology of the experience. It changes everything. And it literally enabled me to be blissfully happy. And that I just was so — I cannot be saved. That is so great, you know, because if you think you can be, but you just haven’t been doing it right, it’s very frustrating. But if you’re like, actually, no, this is just what it is, and it may or may not change, and to really know that, for some reason it was a sad thing that rises — I was not just fine with it, I was blissed out by it. If I achieved anything allegorically in the book, which I didn’t set out to do at all, that was really huge. It meant a lot to me. And it was real, you know. It was very real.
Shearn Coan: It definitely radiates out, I think, into the poem.
Teare: Good, I’m glad.
Shearn Coan: So I want to thank you for this beautiful conversation.
Teare: Thank you for engaging with it so deeply.