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