Nearness with attitude
An interview with Andrew Maxwell
Note: To celebrate the recent release of Andrew Maxwell’s Candor Is the Brightest Shield, I interviewed Andrew by email at a thoughtful pace that extended from April to August 2015. As a frequenter of the Los Angeles–based Poetic Research Bureau, which he codirects, and as an avid reader of his work, I found the interview to illumine Andrew’s life and work: his philosophic dispositions, his recondite yet populist interests, and his consistent commitment to community through dissensus — a rare tolerance for disagreement. His works include: Candor Is the Brightest Shield (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), Peeping Mot (Apogee Press, 2013), and chapbooks published by PRB including Quotation or Paternity and The Coward Ecumenical. Not only is Andrew a poet, publisher, and convener of poetry readings and multimedia occasions; he is also a baseball sportswriter, musician, DJ, taxonomist, Google product manager, and translator, and has been involved in electoral politics. As for me: I’m Deborah Meadows, a poet and playwright whose latest two books areTranslation, the bass accompaniment: Selected Poems (Shearman Press, 2013) and Three Plays (BlazeVOX [books], 2015). — Deborah Meadows
Deborah Meadows: The Poetic Research Bureau has a long and beloved standing in the Los Angeles area, and with Joseph Mosconi (and formerly Ara Shirinyan), you have helped form a loosely structured community. Can you make a connection to those activities, or your work in translation, with Candor Is the Brightest Shield? The significance and often puzzling pleasures of human relations seem a significant presence in this work, as is the more recent experience of becoming a father and the embodied experience of growing children.
Andrew Maxwell: It’s a great question, really. I do think there is a continuum, and really no bright lines between the learning, conversation, and research at the PRB and what I might do privately in other settings. While there’s some fatigue lately with the terms ‘forum’ and ‘curation,’ forum-building and curatorial activities have long preceded my publishing activities, even if I’ve written consistently, albeit privately, since I was very young. I also have a bit of an antiauthoritarian and anti-institutional tic that makes me want to keep my fora porous, their boundaries soft and their missions portable. I feel the same about the book, as I try to test its conventions even as I participate in them (with suspicion).
On the topic specifically of the PRB, which has existed in some capacity for two decades now (as long as I have been a public writer in any sense), what I prize in it is its tendency to be slow, to be occasional, to be portable, to accommodate difficulty and disagreement, to be both independent and contingent simultaneously, which is to say, to be fundamentally adjacent. These are all values I cultivate in my writing. Portability and adjacency are two properties I think about a lot.
By adjacency, I mean, can I stand to the side and listen? Can I stand to the side and be productive that way? Even if it means standing to the side of my own voice, on the page, within verse, in the community. In service, sure, but also present, sentineling. (A word with an etymology that includes watching, feeling, protecting.) And can I make poetic statements that are portable, that can be taken into the lives of others, that may be dispossessed, happily?
Dispossession and disownership are abiding concerns for me, in literature and in community. These are of course human relations, and my custodial attentions to the PRB and its improvised community, no less to my family, reflect both my drive to come near and come apart at once. An astrologer would say this is explained by my strongly aspected Aquarian sun in the sixth house (the house of volunteerism, service, and nursing), making me an aloof community-builder with a mischievous fetish for dissensus. You won’t catch me insisting that that is the cause, but the description is apt.
Meadows: Interesting. I have to admit it took me a long time to realize that PRB has a predecessor in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that group also had an art and poetry publication named The Germ. Today’s PRB also has a sisterhood …
Maxwell: Yeah, I think at the time it appeared there was some impatience with the effete decorum of The Germ, which appeared out of touch in a time of great solution-seeking in poetry. But its untimeliness wasn’t accidental. Untimeliness is still something I attempt to elevate in literature. Literature in its most generous sense allows us not to ‘borrow from the past’ but to actively inhabit and live it. The best compliment paid to this recent book was from Aaron Kunin, who, perhaps just being kind, told me it was ‘timeless.’ For some, that could be a pejorative, but for me, who loves the idea of this, and who deeply admires Aaron, I’ll take that word into outer space.
Meadows: I admire Aaron Kunin’s work, too. We’re lucky to have him in the vicinity. Having reread The Germ (2001), I noticed Aaron’s early excerpt from The Sore Throat, and so many other carefully curated pieces: Georges Perec, Philippe Beck, Liliane Giraudon, Remi Giaccomotti’s “Portland” and “Cobain,” Peter Gizzi’s interview with Keith Waldrop, and so on — wonderful! You note that you resist the book form, its enclosure or forced stability in form that you phrase “version control,” yet Candor Is the Brightest Shield brings together work that offers what seems a careful arrangement. How did you arrive at this?
Maxwell: I’m a bit of a book skeptic. If we think of the book as a companionable form, it’s not an especially charitable one. It forcibly extrudes this exotic substance into a limited number of inherited templates — and these templates are rather indifferent to concerns, the shape and color of argument, its seasons, its cohort, its aches, its velocity. It’s easy to distrust the book! This may be why I’ve come to publication pretty late, somewhat reluctantly, and these first two traditional books — if they are indeed books rather than melancholy prototypes toward some intellectual protest — carry keys and directives for self-assembly and reassembly beyond what the shape of the book itself affords. Like whipped terriers, they still come to heel, though, carrying author’s name and copyright page and barcode. Anna [Moschovakis] and Ed [Smallfield] would confirm that I would’ve subtracted these too if permitted.
Each section of Candor roughly maps to a pamphlet or collection I’ve assembled and distributed by hand to friends over the years — in kind of a handicraft practice, as I would never print more than ten copies of a collection, and upon each subsequent reprinting would change the contents, and often the verse or aphorisms within. What survived were the concerns (or “keys”) listed at the footer of each section. The first arrangement collected roughly seven of these pamphlets, but on more consideration, we sampled from three of the oldest of them and placed them at back in the section “The Prior Art,” which might have been an alternative title for the collection as a whole, given how much it is preoccupied with intellectual property in its many senses. That section contains a style of long verse that I rarely pursue any more.
Meadows: Keys unlock, set experience of music, have an indexical relation to elsewhere. But do they also involve a possibility of succession in time? Or unlock an area of your thought? Here, some [keys] from Candor Is the Brightest Shield are:
In the section “Quotation or Paternity”:
KEYS: Version control. Invention. Prior art.
Attribution. Quotation. Pseudo-folk. Inventory.
Vernacular. Direct address.
In the section “Radiant Species”:
KEYS: Taxonomy. The visual intelligence.
‘Human interest.’ Porosity. The bounded society.
Models. Animal grief.
Maxwell: The dominant key conceits for me are from cryptography and music, both of which order the transmission of information, or order an addressed communication. I think of many poems as exemplars of book ciphers, poem codes of greater or lesser complexity, and I think a reader rarely possesses the precise key that the sender (poet) intended to share. Of course, many poets don’t intend to share at all, at least not universally or comprehensively, were it even possible, and it’s the play of disclosure and withholding that gives poetry its dynamic and often frustrating sociality. Some poems aim to confuse, to dazzle or suffuse, and as Caillois insisted some time ago, there’s pleasure in vertigo. And part of the joy of living in the literature is experiencing its occultation.
At risk of talking around the subject, here is a series of ‘suspended judgments’ from the ongoing Peeping Mot:
— That the occupation of literature is encipherment.
— That the poem cannot liberate the plaintext.
— That the poem clarifies and contaminates the plaintext at turns.
— That wonder is the ring of keys.
— That each syllable is a key, and each key a ravager.
— That if literature is encipherment, the dream of literature is agency and its nightmare, revelation.
— That the joy of literature is its occultation.
Though I’m persuaded that it’s a fairly recent development that we’ve attempted to make poetry more universally accessible, I’m sure it’d give any number of sincere poetry educators fits to revert to the old conceit of locked verse, awaiting some liberator or destroyer of sufficient genius to retrieve its urgent and tender messages. It’s not my mission, minor or otherwise, to perpetuate a mere fantasy of safes, spies, and heists. Though I do think, as in engineering, there’s a principle of ‘security by obscurity’ among poets. Each poem has its intimates, even those ostensibly addressed to anyone or everyone, and these intimates are those who will survive it, and the survivors are few.
It’s more crucial to me, as someone who wants to find poetry to be useful and livable, to produce a language of a sufficient difficulty commensurate with the perils of living. The voice is never calibrated. My keys invite transposition, and without doubt, the most interesting available readings will be themselves out-of-key.
Meadows: Here are a few samples from your work entitled Peeping Mot. From “Domains & Intents: 2”:
What publishing and poetry have in common, fundamentally?
It’s like a forced marriage of mathematics and cantaloupe.
And from “Peeping Mot p.5”:
Where is the entire interview? What is a mistaken belief?
Like at mid-evening, when it’s impossible to conceive of a solitary
failure, and unmarketability is an accommodating landlord.
“Chain of title.” “Talent agreements.”
Failure and marketability, interviewed, mistaken for brothers.
key: PEEPING MOT
And there are occasions of prolonged, witty barbs in the poem titled “The Conceptual Poet and the Hiring Committee” and others such as “This Time It’s for Real,” the first line of which is: “Against expression” in reference to a recent anthology by that title. Are these bemused takes on the incommensurable nature of art and the workings of a market economy? How, despite differences in power and sway, each intrudes on the other with errancy all around? Are “commons” creative?
Maxwell: Wry, maybe. The writing stands against literatures that are chiefly in service to movement or program and attempts to imagine a literature outside of academic and para-academic domains, as well as commercial publishing. This is the ‘career’ of the PRB, as well. It’s increasingly difficult to imagine a literature like this, at this peculiar historical time where most potentially interesting poetry is […] produced by those with academic appointments, or by those writing toward a next book. Many of the concerns and agonies of poets are those of academics in a system in crisis where humanities are increasingly devalued, and individuation proceeds via constructed innovations, minor scandals, and necessary professional publication.
If we think of the American moderns, from Whitman and Dickinson through the young poets active around when I was born, it’s easy to find nurse- and doctor-poets, engineer-poets, postman-poets, soldier-poets, linguist-poets, activist-poets, journalist-poets, insurance-agent-poets. Poetry is work done on the person and polycentric bodies of knowledge, to the side of the job. Canons and vanguards were less clear, and assembled less in service of the profession and pedagogy. I want to imagine a practice of writing that is agnostic to or discrete from the taxonomies and canons, especially the professional taxonomies and canons that precede literature or determine the act of writing — apart from those subsumptive movements and authorities that condition what the statement may mean. Instead creating a kind of process where the statement determines the taxonomy. It’s a type of utopian constructivism, I acknowledge — a sort of chasing after horizontalidad in literature. A contingent practice, but opposed to mere submission or attribution. And to evoke that kindred practice of horizontalidad: “Constructing freedom is a learning process that can only happen in practice.”
Can we imagine a writing that is not subsumed? Can we imagine a writing that is not effectively subscription?
Meadows: You reflect on as well as use the proposition as a poetic form, and it extends what might be a logician’s range in various ways. Can you comment?
Maxwell: There’s some adjacency to analytic philosophy and forensics, no question. I approach poetry as a space of value arbitration that is fundamentally undisciplined, but also unlike philosophy, which is a domain almost perfectly contained by the academy at this point. Do we speak of philosophy almost exclusively as a discipline now? I do, however, think writers continue to imagine a ‘total poetry’ quite often, and the total poetry is inevitably disciplinary. I act as an enemy of the total poetry.
A poem, if I am fortunate enough to make one, typically aspires to a free field of argument that tests a proposition that I don’t fully understand the implications of — a proposition that is difficult, but may be useful for living if posed carefully. At this point, I am more caught up in making propositions than verse, but when I do make verse, it’s what I might call ‘forensic verse’ — testing the livability of a given proposition. In many cases these propositions have been temporarily true for me, but poetry permits the possibility of them being very wrong — though perhaps right for a future receiver. They are tools that I hope will help someone down the line, in their own time.
Meadows: The aphorism? The epigram? Brief but resonant, often a form for philosophers (more often experienced outside the academy: barefoot, laconic, ancient), and often deflects the drive toward deductive logic. Here are examples from Candor Is the Brightest Shield, in the section titled “Life X”:
Quotation is the paternity of reclamation.
My generation is shy to talk of our generation, yet we continue to talk about reform.
One doesn’t seek explanation at the teat.
This love is a confirmation hearing, seeking ever clearer statements of intent.
Brainard said that “air is the only hope,” even as foreign matter is the first dilemma of negative philosophy.
Discourse of a breakfast companion: fart, grunt, raspberry, belch. Cartoon or no, Brainard was right when he said air is the only hope.
Maxwell: I admire the tradition of the aphorism as asytematic literature. What seduces me in the aphorism and poetry both is their utter lack of progress. Or at least, perhaps, the promise of that lack. The open laughter of the epigram in the face of a preemptive totality.
The models that tend to endorse my practice — that feel companionable to me — are largely French: Rene Char’s Leaves of Hypnos, both in the original and in Cid Corman’s beautiful translation, and also the notebooks of Joseph Joubert, who, lucky Joe, left no single book, but lived among smart, voluble people who brought him to pitched thought throughout his life. There are others: Lichtenberg, Cioran, Fourier, Pascal, Wittgenstein.
Meadows: Philosophic poetry has a long tradition: to give a rough line, one thinks of John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Jacques Roubaud, Clark Coolidge, among many others, and how philosophers such as Wittgenstein and John L. Austin have select portions of their works read as poetry. Another slanting line might move from a genre of apothegm in Diogenes’s Cynic philosophy to Adorno’s Minima Moralia (side stepping Plutarch’s Moralia) on to Rene Char, or … Where do you place your interests and concerns? Is there a tricky relation to moral philosophy?
Maxwell: Almost every name you mention has meant something to me at some point in my reading life. As a teenager, I also read into Emerson and Nietzsche heavily, the latter probably too much, and without conspicuous understanding. I read Marx early — I recall I took a medal at the state level in an academic decathlon in economics the year Marxism was the annual specialization. (Imagine that happening again in the US!)
My first contacts with poetry as an early teen were probably the metaphysicals, and oddly, Creeley, Dickinson, late Dylan Thomas. I took courses on the pre-Socratics. I came to university certain I wanted to study philosophy of language, and was inevitably redirected to linguistics and natural language study. I became distracted, perhaps unhealthily, by poetry and translation exercises, but the philosophic emphasis no question endured. I found a sweet spot in Lucretius and the Epicurean tradition as he preserved it, and later Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I suspect these are touch points for many who read enthusiastically into poetry and philosophy both.
I’ve been drawn to poets who tend to engage metaphysics and ontology freely: Ponge, Char, Moore. Agonists of the imagination like Williams, Stevens, Guest. At university, when I took literature courses, I studied alternately under Nate Mackey and a Marxist China scholar named Chris Connery who was certain literature was dead. He had me read thousands of pages of classical and medieval Chinese philosophy, along with a lot of materialist history and Frankfurt School writers. Meanwhile, under Nate, it was everyone from Wilson Harris to Susan Howe, Dogon mythology, Caribbean and Latin American literatures. It was a very eclectic literary education, heavy in various philosophical traditions, and I was attempting to pursue it while studying linguistics, Mandarin, French, and other languages for my official major. I became a very bad student, because I tried to read everything and had very little time to write papers. Half my course grades were incompletes, but I was frequently sought out as a teaching assistant, because I was a rare student who, though erratic and a little crazy, actually read the books!
Meadows: In Peeping Mot (and later in Candor Is the Brightest Shield) segments from “Life X” on father-son experience, that often feel startled and delighted, include these:
The father is a holdover. Tall, neutral angel, frequently lapsing into
That the inevitable parental subsidy to the child is chiefly a
To understand Char’s sense of acquiescence, one must understand
what he chose to sentinel: the sovereignty of the child.
The mot, mote, word, pithy aphorism, particle suggest many readings: that from which much (all?) can be made, or what might interrupt total assurance of smooth operation, be without anchor bolts. How might an undeniable creaturely growth shake up the staid social life that, too often, can […] swallow one into its grammatical patterning — yet language initiates each of us into community via deep structure, Chomsky-sort of grammar claimed here as a parental (or species) legacy?
“On the Partisan and Propositionality” relates that stutter itself is suspended with rote material such as a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but then we learn that stutter is exhibited when a stutterer speaks a proposition. To test an observed or unproven thought is a challenge to, or escape from, “unerring” enunciation? Or can be carried away through weeds in wild margins? The Rene Char quotation also opens your earlier chapbook The Coward Ecumenical.
Maxwell: There are a number of ideas to explore here, though I’m at a loss to solve for all these questions. Maybe we can start with language and Char first.
Personally, I’m marked by my own biography. I have an adoptive father, as did my mother, who had me out of high school, and her biological father was an orphan and a twin. Really we’re redneck gypsies — or to import a term from another domain, my ‘authority file’ is weak. (That may be why I took to Robert Duncan when I was eighteen or nineteen, another adopted autodidact from the San Joaquin.) My familial models are themselves weak, as much as my language modeling is frail. I’m testing both simultaneously, as person, as poet, as father. Because there is so much surrogacy and disappearance in my personal history, I’m a gross skeptic, hunting after tools to “speak to,” stumbling over language primitives, but frequently desperate to confide.
Both Peeping Mot and Candor Is the Brightest Shield worry over the inevitable indirection of language — the risk, the usefulness, the agony, the necessity of its concealments. Whether I am speaking to an ally, or speaking to a child, how do I convey my presence, my sincerity of effort, my charge of being? How do I confide without reducing my companions — to mere performers, to surrogates in some script or language game? Or reduce myself to a mere subscriber or underwriter of some preowned language? In this sense, the most critical idea I’m dogging is that of confidence. What is meant by ‘having every confidence’? Or a confidence in the language, a confidence in speaking, a confidence to speak? The plurality of the term is dazzling, and holds an unsteady mirror up to language, and, I think, to authoring or fathering. Its sense of trick or counterfeit, its sense of binding and contract, its urgent sense of passing on, through trust or pledge. The poet must be confident above all, but that’s a rather terrible curse, insisting upon any number of double agencies.
That’s why Char’s Leaves of Hypnos is such a powerful example for me — Char’s resistance war diary. Its war-born language of code-switching and disguises, that is still so needful for candor and transparency, and for a ‘society’ that will not murder itself. How do you recognize another bearing such a curse? How do you recognize a comrade? It cannot be through language expertise alone. You recognize the struggle via the stutter, the blush. We can admire experts, but we do not love them. And expertise and confidence are not the same thing.
Meadows: In Peeping Mot,you write in “Further Theories on the Graph”: “Beauty has too few concerns, whereas sadness is always evidential.” Does this aphoristic approach to aesthetic metatheory pursue a mischievous sense of affect?
Maxwell: You would hope for some mischief, right? That these statements I put there are something more than barefaced and platitudinous — not repetitions of some previous century’s arguments. But I try to purposefully avoid easy irony — which for me is a symptom of mere discomfort with being social in a manufactured present — and also to resist the notion that some statements are of this time, and others inapt, or obsolesced. Though ‘fat art’ is not for me, and I’m not overly preoccupied with escape, I’m sympathetic with Joe Gould when he writes to Pound: “You solve the problem of escape by being an expatriate — I am an extemporate.” I really do disdain the notion of literary progress. We should repeat with conscience and with care, but without fear.
If there’s any mischief involved, it’s often just the transposition of commonplace terms — terms that to me remain very mysterious, like beauty or sadness — into registers or domains where their meanings are more specialized, but where they still belong in an unusual way. In the example you mention, there’s an attempt to bring the affective and scientific senses of beauty into relationship through the field of graph theory. How does my or your notion of beauty evolve if we think about it in terms of the transactional, the relational?
I share the ’pataphysician’s enthusiasm for creating proofs for impossible subjects. But I don’t share the mathematician’s desire to see them to an end. It’s enough for me to start the thinker down the ‘wrong’ path, to make things delightfully difficult, to remind one how big and tough the world is, and how rebelliously structured.
My favorite models for thinking remain the nineteenth-century constructivist schoolbooks, like that of Lilienthal and Allyn, that build knowledge through ‘object lessons,’ and in the process demonstrate how knowledge is itself constructed, individually and collectively. The ‘things’ under my own scrutiny are often values, motives, affective relationships. But hopefully my compass is flexible enough to include discrete things too — like a child’s face, or the measure of a horse or dog. I struggle with the visual imagination, so I need to spend more time with discrete things.
Meadows: Do you refer to Fourier the mathematician or the expansive utopian writer? In your case, might both pertain? Or, with the example of the cover image for Candor Is the Brightest Shield “Zoological Times Table” by David Malki ! (altered detail) wherein hybridized animals — this year’s hippogriffs — are arrayed in a grid permutation that might flirt with Fourier’s series? Or in your “key” of animal grief, radiant species?
Maxwell: More Charles than Joseph Fourier. While there’s a kid math bowl contestant buried in me, and there are various math jokes embedded in many of my ‘published poems,’ Charles Fourier has certainly marked me more over the course of this life. Their concerns are not completely disjoint, however. They were both preoccupied with decomposition and numeracy, but Charles Fourier was obsessed with typologies, and though a fantasist, was also a great taxonomist. His Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy is pure ecstasy — a taxonomist’s Traumwerk. And I shared that vocation for over a decade.
Retrospectively, Fourier is a bit of a font for much of what I am and do. The first biographical essay of any length I can recall writing in late elementary school, perhaps fifth grade, was an extended book report on Horace Greeley, the Whig abolitionist who was also an American Fourierist. I wrote many little books and pamphlets when I was a child, and the first I can remember in detail was a small sketchbook of future discoveries of extinct animals with their descriptions and categorizations. A little revealing, right? It was a naturalist’s collection of animals that were, at [the] time of writing, not known now, but would be learned of at a future date — at which point they would be already gone. Fourier’s imagination is riddled with these paradoxes; this desire to conflate, as Jameson glossed it, ontology and utopia. To build elaborate systems of categorization that, in their scale and lack of mutual exclusivity, defeat themselves in their preposterous organization, let alone their application. For someone who rankles at notions of inheritance, of a lineage of influence, there’s some recapitulation of Fourier’s projects in my own.
The trajectory of Fourier’s social thought through Proudhon finds a sympathetic current in me as well. The paradoxical teloi of socialism and liberty, mutual aid and dissensus, and a conception of anarchy that means not an absence of social organization or structure, but an absence of sovereign or master. Because Proudhon’s solutions were under constant revision, the more dogmatic find him a failed thinker. Because Proudhon worked simultaneously within the government and without — prototyping an existential model of dual power — the less patient find him a failed revolutionary. But that’s good failure — his changeability and openness to revision, contradiction, and personal evolution is what I admire in him. I’m searching after a model of writing and a society of literature that respects the emphases that Fourier and Proudhon brought to political economy (without some of their prejudicial tics, of course). I consider poetry an “attractive work.”
So to loop back to your question, the hybridized creatures on the cover of Candor just provide a visual echo of that position: there are no sovereign or master copies (‘master copies’!), there are no patient zeroes, and version control is weak. All taxonomies are provisional, as is the work. Attribution will come only reluctantly, and does not carry the force of ownership. Again, this personal mania for disownership in literature.
Meadows: Your “daughter” poems in “Ottolineal” include:
Mischievous daughter — like the epigram, a portable form of life that
demands allegiance but not taxonomy.
That gender provisions for its handicaps with conventions.
Perplexity, to be neutral and do no harm, unruled but acknowledging her
The hyphenate power of the daughter.
Daughter and father play the soft sport of availability.
You talk about object lessons; I talk about animal grief.
The heart arrives as a coincidence.
There is much thought and varied feeling here: a deepened empathy, quizzical moments on structures of knowledge and gender dynamics, and what seems a renewed interest in how language (in all its forms) implies an interlocutor especially with a child, perhaps how a father has to be alert to “catch” the near-vocable, the gesture, the impulse for warmth and play from the baby daughter, that monologue is not of this moment.
Maxwell: These come out of a project, or self-study, where I attempted to write one statement or thought per day for each of the early years of my son’s and daughter’s lives, after birth. Both Peeping Mot and Candor Is the Brightest Shield sample from these projects. I had already been writing in a mode that was moving away from verse, or verse-like objects with typical titling conventions, toward frameless statements, or chains of statements, and I wanted to test for myself the idea that these modes of writing were interchangeable, or could be brought into easy relation. That my way of testing propositions about literature, ownership, or society was much the same as how I was testing my own assumptions about paternity or parenting.
I’m returning to these themes a lot, but disownership and adjacency are essential again to these projects. I want to be very near to these children, but I don’t want to call them mine. I am not their owner; I do not subsume them, but we cannot help but change each other. I can say […] the same of the statements that I read, and the statements that I make: I am not their owner; I do not subsume them, but we can’t help but change each other. We are intimate; we are in close relation; and we are not the same day by day.
There are musical precedents. Hoagy Carmichael anticipated this human question from another angle when he wrote: “It isn’t your sweet conversation / That brings this sensation / Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you.” Language offers some proximity, but how much?
Ottolineal specifically explores the relational nature of daughtering, and of the problem of authority in rhetorical conceits of the daughter. Historical literature is full of statements like Bacon’s “truth is the daughter of time.” Daughtering has a syntactical function that is variably troubling and exciting, and it’s also worth troubling or exciting its conventional senses. Some of these senses are awfully old-fashioned. The statements I’m testing reflect this, and also offer alternatives. I insist upon acknowledging the difference, but not on exact solutions.
Meadows: In Candor, the opening photograph with older and younger baseball-shirt-wearing players: A and asterisk, your baseball team the Angels(?), and the book’s author “Andrew” is whittled down to “A” …
Maxwell: It’s sourced from a photo archive of Californian amateur baseball history, roughly a century ago. Those are indeed California Angels, a half-century before the team came into being. I’m a native Californian, a partisan for California, and a baseball enthusiast. The Angels are my team — they are an unlovable team, and I find angels as a conceit tiresome and unlovable. Calling the father a “tall, neutral angel, frequently lapsing into the human” is a tiresome and unlovable statement, but I was reminded of Bruno Ganz in Wings of Desire, and the struggle of the proximate to gain in confidence. The struggle to warm the hands, to refuse to be nonchalant, without determining the outcome of the human project. There’s a project of loving in this.
That photo was quite a find, with not a little Bretonian flea market magic to it, since the letter A and the asterisk otherwise appear throughout the work, as refrains, as totems, as passwords, as anonymizing agents. ‘A’ is also a nod in assent to the minor poetries I care to look after — like David Schubert’s Initial A and Wallace Berman’s lifelong project Aleph. These are works that are singular, and magical, but lack legacy. I want to be comfortable with that Epicurean mission to live unknown or to live obscure. If not to leave no trace, then to leave only traces, and to be sated in that. You may see the flashing banner, but a brand you shall not find.
Meadows: As an extension of your response on “adjacency”: in your work, a self is hinted at who is variously self-effacing, encoded, assured, “at argument,” exploratory, bemused, stubbornly “on the fence,” planted on the margin of self-aggrandizing culture projects, alert, observant of how democracy fell short of its ideals — its compromises or holding patterns — between the hero and the “coward ecumenical,” and resistant to fixing the human heart in names or categories. Can you comment?
Additionally, earlier poems hint at relational interests in long poems, such as “Collaborators,” dedicated to Philippe Beck. What do you owe to those literary conversations?
Maxwell: I think you capture that cranky, wobbly, ambivalent speaker better than I could!
I’m not sure I believe in literary debts, such that one might ‘owe’ something to be paid back — I go to the mat to resist the idea that poetry is a kind of money. But I do believe in literary friendships, and find that there is nothing more generative to writing. Friendships help me change my mind, and help me come to consciousness. Brief friendships that I had with Gustaf Sobin and Barbara Guest strongly impacted my notions of literary responsibility and fidelity to the imagination when I began to write in earnest in my twenties. Those friendships occurred at roughly the same time as when I was attempting to translate some of Beck’s early work. It made my mind active and gave me a sense of freedom, movement, and departure — and made me very certain that I wanted to enter into relation with voices outside my place and time. It made me certain that my fidelity is not to my contemporaries, but to my friends, wherever they may be. That Neverland of Whitman’s camerados.
You mention the human heart — that’s a conceit I don’t embrace much, but I know the poem you’re thinking of (“Letter to Peacemakers”), and it’s illustrative. The first real friendship that I had with a serious poet that wasn’t purely a teacher-student relationship — with someone who thought themself a poet, and who worked to be one — was my friendship with Peter Gizzi in my mid-twenties. I’d spend a lot of time in his apartment, and we’d read poems aloud late into the night, including some early versions of poems he was working on. One of those versions would become his poem “Pierced” in the collection Artificial Heart, which begins “The heart of poetry is fatigue …”
That line never sat right with me. I never questioned its sincerity, its coherence in the poem, or the seriousness of its implications — but I disagreed with it. It was not right for me; it might even be dangerous for me. That’s a difficult thing to say to someone a decade older than you, and someone who does this ‘for a living.’ But that was an important moment for me, because I came to consciousness in a number of ways, and it brought me to a [sense of] self-assurance about several things. One — whether it be a poem, a theory, a ‘work of art’ — what matters to me most is its argument, and the test of that argument’s soundness is its livability — its fitness for living. What are the implications for me in this life if I take this as true? Two, one can take the assertions of poetry seriously, and so I will try to wherever I find them. And finally, the strength of a friendship is measurable by how accommodating it is of serious disagreements. I really seek out disagreements in literature and think even provisional disagreement is essential for understanding anything in depth. Disagreement without animus, where possible! Disagreement can change and refine us, and that’s the sort of ‘collaboration’ I seek.
By the way, I think I’ve also come to terms with, now as then, not really having a strong desire to be a poet. “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” I’m not looking for a career or a name in poetry, and I am not eager to place a name on what I am becoming, have become, or will soon experience. I am a friend of the poets and to the poets; I do service in poetry. I hope to be known only enough to increase the number and note of those friendships: an “asterisk in thy region.” I have too many interests to say or be otherwise. I’m just as eager to be an impresario, a DJ, a drummer, an engineer, or a dragon, as Marianne Moore would have it. Faithful to the charged, observant mind — its “conscientious inconsistency.”
Meadows: Indeed, many interests. This has been intriguing, Andrew, and thanks for the sustained interview.
Maxwell: Thank you, Deborah. See you at the Bureau!
1. As in his books, Maxwell asserts the alternative convention of inverted commas over double quotations when speaking to key phrases or terms of art. The conflation of deixis and attribution in rhetorical and literary convention is also a central concern of both books discussed in this interview.