A Space of Poetry: An Interview With Douglas Messerli
Interview by Martin Nakell
Douglas and I agreed to limit the discussion that follows on his poetry. His prodigious output in nearly every genre of writing imaginable is legendary. It would take an unimaginable amount of time to discuss it all in one interview; that discussion would take up a prohibitive amount of space in a journal to print.
That turns out to have been a very right decision, for, with that constraint, we are able to hone in on some complicated issues significant to the most prescient writing practices of our time. And Douglas Messerli is among those at the very forefront, re-imagining poetry in the most abundant of excitements imaginable. Having been a reader, and lover, of Douglas’ work over many years, I learned things, saw things – nuances – in his poetry I hadn’t previously noticed, which gave me a more intimate awareness of the scope of his work, increasing my appreciation for the impact it makes. ‘Twas a lovely experience of engaging with the spirit of Douglas Messerli – his mind of poetry, his “space of poetry,” his energetic commitment to opening up the challenging and rewarding art of poetry – for which I thank Douglas. An experience I’m glad to share.
Martin Nakell: Your language emerges from the situation (place, person, philosophy, poetics theory) it encounters. I say “emerges from” as opposed to “put upon” because there’s a big difference. You write from within the poem as it explores its arena – rather than from outside the poem, imposing some pre-conceived idea it must follow. This leads me to several questions. The first of which: would it be fair to say we can read this work as impressionistic, impressionist poetics, that is, rather than struggling to put it together logically, absorbing it as a whole – made of melopoeia, phanopoeia, et alia, and from that impression, to let meaning accrue?
Douglas Messerli: You’re absolutely correct when you suggest that my poetry emerges from the poem and is not put upon it or placed into it as if it were a vessel waiting for my wise words.
I have never written a poem knowing what I might express or even desired to express beforehand. And all my poetry (and incidentally my fiction and even my prose) has been something constructed as I move through the space of language, with no preconceived notion of where I was going or what I might be intending to express. I understand what it means only through the process of writing and the final result.
And yes, the tools I use to construct that include sound, song, repetition, and all the devices of poetics including rhyme, alliteration, homonyms, puns, association, and sometimes just plain gibberish (although very carefully controlled), as well as maxims, old wives’ tales, false epigrams, or subconscious association. And in that sense it is fairly impressionistic. Stéphane Mallarmé the impressionist, not the symbolist, has always been one of my favorite poets. And, of course, Gertrude Stein, who uses most of these tactics is my god and goddess.
But then, I am also a Midwesterner, and plain talk is one of my constant goals, something which as a fellow-Midwesterner you might understand. And in that sense William Carlos Williams is extremely important to me. Of course my plain talk, Stein’s or even Williams’ doesn’t always sound like the plain talk that gets spoken among friends or business associates. It is the kind of plain talk that one speaks to oneself or one’s lover, a kind of coded message that appears as one is attempting to say something he or she hasn’t yet truly thought that carefully about. I would say that my poetry is an attempt, just as are my prose essays, to explain to myself what I mean or am thinking about, generally after seeing or reading a work by someone else.
So accordingly the community of poets is extremely important to me and my work. While many people, including myself, use dictionaries and thesauruses to help them along, I also use the poetry of other poets, diving into their language to steal a word or two or three, a half a line and then returning to my own next phrase before diving in once more to find the right words to move me along in my thoughts. So yes, even the writing is a process of accretion. A poem ceases only when it has accrued enough meaning for me to feel I’ve expressed what I didn’t know that I had to say, but now have begun to comprehend or have completed saying.
At poem’s end the work is filled with rather coherent meaning, and I can tell you about that, even write a prose essay to explain it. That doesn’t mean I might not explain it completely differently on another day, or that others might not see very different aspects of that expression. It can mean many things to many different people, but it doesn’t, I assure you, mean anything that anyone wants to say it does. There are definite limits to what I believe I have expressed. But then it appears that few readers can read the work as easily as I do by poem’s end.
That has something to do with the fact that I appear to have a natural ability to narrativize anything. If you gave me three poems by three different poets, I am certain I could write an essay logically linking the three works. My brain simply functions in a manner that no matter how chaotic something appears I cannot help but to make meaning of it. That is not say that the meaning of each thing is equally significant or rich or brilliant, but I can provide a logical sense of significance out of almost any written sentence or group of sentences and phrases. My brain is just hard-wired that way. When many people ask what? I say “this” or “that.” And generally can compare it to another such this or that.
Accordingly, I do try to help my readers in exploring the meaning in the poems I have created, and I rewrite several times until, without losing the wonderment of the search, I have pointed more clearly to the meanings I previously discovered. In short, I’m not trying to be difficult, obscure, or arcane just for its own sake. I am attempting to communicate. An impression is fine but I would hope the reader searches further to discover something close to the meaning I discovered in the process of writing.
And finally, I should add, if I don’t understand a poem I write by the time I’ve finished writing and reworking it, I throw it away.
You write – as epigram to River to Rivet: A Manifesto, from 1984: “I am more interested in the relationship of river to rivet than I am in the relationship of river to bridge.” This could serve as a maxim for the whole school of Language poets. Each of those poets shares similar concerns, yet each certainly writes unique work, identifiable as their own —by what Marjorie Perloff (to displace the lyrical/romantic/sentimental and constricting term, “voice”) calls “signature.” I’ve engaged in the discussion of whether Douglas Messerli (given that you, of course, published all of the Language poets) is himself of that school, of whether you are a “Language poet.” This is a question I think it profitable to raise early in this interview, as it will set us up for further exploration throughout.
Strange, if you’d asked me this very same question in, say, 1987 when New Directions asked me to edit “Language” Poetries I most definitely would have said, “Yes, of course.” My poetry changed radically when I discovered Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Ted Greenwald, and others with whom I felt an immediate kinship.
Because of the controversy regarding the New Directions book, particularly after Ron Silliman’s and Barrett Watten’s attempts to disrupt its publication, I was told by ND that I could not possibly include my own poetry in that volume, which meant, obviously, I did not consider myself a “language” poet, and of course, I was not in Silliman’s own anthology (In the American Tree) of the same time, since at that point I had had little contact with the West Coast contingent. So, in a sense, I was excluded without being able to even protest. Although Bernstein did include me in the Paris Review “Language Sampler” of 1982. And I think I wrote the first widely read review of “Language poetry” on works by Bernstein, Andrews, and Bob Perelman in The Village Voice in “Wordscape Artists” in that same year.
By the time it came to editing my giant anthology From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 (published in 1994), it seemed no longer to matter as much, and my hurt in being wrongfully excluded had begun to mend. I included myself in the section devoted to performative poetries such as John Cage, David Antin, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, Mac Wellman, Fiona Templeton, and, oddly enough, Bruce Andrews.
Obviously, by that time the so-called “Language” poetry was beginning to dissipate as a poetry “grouping,” as all such literary groups eventually do. And it no longer mattered to be described as “something.” My poetry by that time had taken on other trajectories, not only the performative, with which it was always involved, since like Wellman and Templeton I also wrote for the theater; but I was also moving further into what I can only describe now as “deep collage,” a kind of early sampling that linked me to a far wider range of poetry and allowed a greater sense of lyricism than my early poetry had permitted. And then, like Rae Armantrout, my [MOU1] poetry had always been grounded in wit. Of course, so is Bernstein’s and Andrew’s work.
In any event, “Language” poetry is now a thing of the past with which I was very much involved—and arguably, given my publishing activities, to which I was very central. But so many of the previously described “Language” poets are now dead or are no longer actively writing that I think if you wanted to call yourself that you’d be creating yourself as a monument to history.
In short, I don’t think that today I would feel comfortable belonging to any “group.” And gathering into groups has always been an activity of the young who band with others often simply out of kinship, an attempt to find poetic identification, and to get some needed attention.
And finally, just to quibble, I obviously did not publish “all” of the Language [MOU2] poets. Most of them perhaps, but not all. And some of the poets I published who were once described as “Language” poets, looking back, might now be seen to be odd candidates for inclusion in what has always been a vaguely connected grouping.
Answering my first question, you include, in your palette, sound, song, repetition, rhyme, alliteration, homonyms, puns, association, “just plain gibberish – very carefully controlled – maxims, old wives tales, false epigrams, subconscious association.” And, I assume, the list would go on. Modernist writers -- Joyce and Pound, for example, promoted inclusion. But it seems (it feels) to me that the spirit of their work (in the spirit of their age) was more intentional, by reference – to establish a lineage. Your inclusionariness – some one hundred years later – arises more out of a love of all forms, a reveling in them. An anti-exclusionary impulse.
In After, you write poems designated as being inspired by other specific poets, and a broad range of poets, from Robert Frost to Cesar Vallejo. This seems to me another kind of inclusion. Douglas Messerli, and then all other poets, are not isolated, writing only on the walls of their own skulls. This feels like a very different aura, a generosity of spirit, a poet among the company not only of others living, but those gone – and those to come – and amidst all the inventions language has to offer.
You seem to be suggesting that I am a kind of poetry whore. [Laughter.] But I am happy to admit that I do indeed love a great many kinds of poetic expression and, moreover, love fiction, drama, film, art, dance, music, and other arts forms with almost equal gusto, which I suppose makes me a bit like how people described the late Lita Hornick, a “Kulchur vulture.” Once when Bruce Andrews was visiting my Philadelphia apartment, in taking a look at my library (far more books back home in our Maryland condo), he quipped, “You have a great many books which I wouldn’t have in my library.” To which I answered, “Well, Bruce we can’t all be as narrow-minded as you!”
Actually, though, it wasn’t meant as a put-down or even a proper come-back. I love Bruce, who always makes me giggle with pleasure at his pronouncements, and I do truly admire those who focus on just a small slice of cultural experience, devoting their lives to it. And actually Bruce has been extremely active in music and dance (through his companion Sally Silvers) as well. I was not all offended by his remarks, and I do admittedly read and admire a large swath of innovative and exploratory poetry, even if many (my husband Howard N. Fox included) find my taste in the arts narrow-minded.
And I should just remind you that in After, some of the poems devoted to others such as the one to Robert Frost were satiric in intent: I simply cannot abide Frost’s pre-packaged narrative wrapped up in meter and rhyme.
But you are absolutely right when you point out that my interest in other poetries is not to show my personal “lineage.” I think that my own poetry is eccentric and original enough that I don’t any longer and perhaps never did need to represent my roots and how I relate to the “tradition.” As I said earlier on, Stein and Williams and a few others—who also incidentally spent a great deal time in trying to represent how they were linked to the American tradition—are enough.
For me poetry is not a body of work or even “a poem,” but an ongoing activity of expression, primarily verbal since in poetry we tend to speak the words in order to better comprehend their meanings. And the older I get I see more clearly just how my writing, my poetry (but also my fiction, drama, and prose) is an attempt to understand meaning. Without truly realizing it, I have been a Wittgensteinian all my life. I cannot understand anything, even another human being without exploring what I see or read of their work unless I put it into my own language. “The limits of language mean the limits of my world.” I argued this even back when I began writing. So to me writing “through” a writer, exploring the traces of another creator’s poetry (or film, fiction, drama, etc.) is the only way I have of getting to know who they are at essence, how they think, and what they are trying to think about.
Each poem dedicated to another is in essence an attempt to get to know that “other” and each essay I write about poetry, fiction, dance, music, film, art, etc. serves the very same purpose. I cannot truly understand anything unless I write about it; speaking words to paper or computer represents a process of deep thinking about another.
And in that manner yes, I’m all for inclusion. As Charles Bernstein basically argued the other night in his Los Angeles reading, and probably the night before that at Chapman, poetry is many different things to as many different people. Obviously not all of those “things” work for me. But when I write a poem it is not actually “a thing,” but the activity of getting to know somebody else’s idea of a poem or expression of the self or whatever they see poetry to be. I suppose I am most interested in those poets who ask more questions than proffer answers, and I enjoy and am engaged with their own struggles to make meaning of things as much as I am with my own attempts.
So it’s nice to have their help, to engage with them in the process of trying to make meaning of the world around them and their selves. While it’s not at all unlike Jack Spicer’s attempts (as in his After Lorca) to engage in other literary traditions, I would rather describe it as an attempt to create a personal community with other poets throughout the literary history that most engages me.
Growing up gay without knowing it in small Iowa town with very few friends, none of whom I knew closely, I always thought of myself very much as an outsider, a loner. What a remarkable discovery now in older age that I have spent almost my entire life engaging deeply with a community of writers as large as my imagination can hold. I don’t need a lineage because poetry is not a line, but an endless link to engagement through language to explore meaning.
I might conclude that the poetries I don’t like are those that close off doors to that engagement or bar questioning itself, which I am afraid is still the dominant form of poetry, at least in the United States.
In your response to my first question, you call Gertrude Stein your “god and goddess.” I think most of our readers here will have some understanding – even if vague – of why you say that. I want to give you an opportunity to riff on Stein, on someone so important to you. Where and when and how did you first encounter her? What is it about her – her work – that so attracts you? What is a history (or histories) of that attraction? Anything that comes to mind. An open forum question for you.
I at first resisted your question, unable, in part, to know even where to begin in describing Stein without writing a whole treatise about her. And I’m still a little out of breath. But I realize that it is actually a very important question.
Stein, interestingly, is perhaps the only major writer who I have not attempted to “write through” in order to create a poem. I have used her language in a short play that intentionally intended its Steinian echoes. But if I were to write a poem using even the smallest units of her language it would still sound, I am certain, as if I were imitating Stein and perhaps convey little of my own voice and discoveries. Stein is such a singular writer that you really can’t imitate her without embarrassing yourself for sounding like a second-rate version of a such a brilliantly gifted being.
No, Stein is important to me because of the aspects of her work that so strongly speak to me at all times, her wondrous exploration of puns, her total joy in aphorisms and old wives’ tales along with her absolute pleasure in the natural cadence of the US American voice—all things that truly engage me. And, of course, Stein didn’t meet a form, traditional or invented, that she wouldn’t try out. Since genre is an extremely important aspect of my work in large, once more Stein is inevitably a model.
Finally, there is just Stein, this sphinxlike figure spitting out words into space that I could sit and read for hours. Some combinations of those words and her so-called sentences appear to be nearly meaningless unless you listen very carefully and are able to make vast connections. While others are so hilariously funny and sad that you just have as she might put it to laugh a lot and cry.
Howard and I once had an argument over Stein, he not at all able to comprehend how I might prefer Stein to, say Dostoevsky or Proust or Eudora Welty (all of whose work he knew I loved) or just about any great novelist or poet. Would I really want to read Stein, he asked me in slight terror, on my death bed? Yes, I insisted—probably at the time more out of contrariness than real conviction—I would love to have Stein read to me as I was dying far more than Faulkner (another writer who I greatly admire). But I now perceive that I truly would like to hear Stein as I lay dying; there is no one who more clearly speaks the truth of how we Americans actually think, speak, and communicate than Stein. She’s got it in her blood, and no matter how many years of enjoying Paris life she might have had, I am certain she would have never lost it.
I certainly don’t agree with everything she says in terms of her beliefs and ideas, but when she just talks out a poem, a play, or a fiction—whatever she wants to call it because in the end they all come to the same thing—her voice expresses a language being explored in every way possible like an endless series of stunning kaleidoscopic images.
I was more influenced by her directly, I’d have to say, in my earlier poetry, starting after Dinner on the Lawn, and most particularly in River to Rivet: A Manifesto (1984) and Maxims from My Mother’s Milk: A Dialogue (1988). The last book, focused as Roland Barthes describes the maxim, on one of the most arrogant and often stupidest of forms of language, was given a tripartite birth through my brain and mouth from the verbal seeds of Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and Roland Barthes, three queers who got under my skin during those years creating a lot of itches that resulted in a literary scratching that I couldn’t have accomplished without their echoes. I mean, how else could I have written such absolutely delicious sexual lines such as “A line dictates its meaning to append,” “Time is the space between the word and the place where it’s heard,” “Art’s a face to define what’s behind,” or to quote a few lines:
The people in sprain are queer
hat over years, tearing
the fresh into beds, bound
to attract as trains
from beguine without the e
ventually become the fox.
I just couldn’t possibly write that way today. But Wilde, Stein, and Barthes could although they didn’t. I did through their help.
To conclude I’d just say that Stein truly was “the mother of us all,” if by us you mean any self-respecting US late 20th century literary adventurer.
I believe that every truly innovative writer will teach you – by reading carefully – how to read them. Something – a certain energy – inhabits your poems, moving them – almost propelling them – on. I hear each thought-phrase complete itself – and leap to the next. And the next may seem “disjuncted” from the previous phrase, but I know it’s not. It’s connected. It seems you begin with words, and then, following those words you discover why you began with those words. And the phrase takes off from there. So that in reading I absorb a whole host of things at once: the words themselves and the sounds of those words, the rhythms they create, the words they suggest to you, the aporia between phrases, the open space I cross by leaping through it. And I find myself beginning the process again through the next phrase. If I don’t try to “make sense” of the irresolvable aporia it resolves into meaning. That is to say, there is a guiding hand. Let’s take, for example, the first lines of “Stout Raven of a Pair” (from First Words, 2004)
stout raven of a pair
for Maggie O’Sullivan
a storm of voices
darting as sworn
yes, that was the finger
with such inordinate
left by things
that ram and rise
to the evocation
In one reading, I can absorb the speed and intensity of the language (words, sound, syntax, and rhythm) and ride it in its sweep to the well-earned “evocation of repose.” I – the reader, take a breath. But not for too long, for, having created a certain meaning (through words, sound, syntax, and rhythm) quickly follows the next phrase: “I leave.”
But I can also do something akin to a close reading, entering at the ubiquity of the non-specific “them” made somewhat concrete at “a storm of voices” to words suggested by that image, “darting as sworn / gunsight—decidedly / yes, that was the finger.” I am not following statements, I am following an association collecting around a locus. Throughout all the phrases in this marvelous poem, to the last one: “my voice becomes a house / wherein I cry for the open / hide—my own.” Those ubiquitous “them,” the “storm of voices,” is here still present, now revealed. In the most delicate artful and suggestive way. Including the could-be contradiction of “open / hide…”
You’ve left much space in the poem for the reader, allowing us to absorb the whole of it, the whole of its meaning as conveyed unconventionally in a sweep of words sound syntax and rhythm – all connected by peregrinations among these elements of a mind – yours and the reader’s.
Is this a fair way of approaching your work? To say that you begin somewhere which takes you to the next and the next and the next, while you have an idea in mind, it goes unstated, but, to the attentive reader, clearly implied. That discovery of the idea may be a discovery to yourself, and that’s what makes it exciting to the reader. What keeps the poem afloat and alive.
Martin, it’s amazing how close you are to the process and to ways in which I seek out meaning. Precisely, I chose a few words either ringing in my head or from another poet’s pages (it may be words spanning over several pages, or a few clumped together) and then move forward from that, often by mental association, but also with the help of words from another poem, or two other poems, etc., words that seem to suddenly pop out of the visual landscape.
I should add that from the earliest days of writing, since I had little time to sit in some dark quiet space what with my travels between two cities or darting between classrooms I came to rely on outside noise as well, the conversations of a bar, a train, a subway, today the background commentary of a news broadcaster. So when I write “through” a poet I am always writing through the world of voices surrounding me as well. It has gotten so that I simply cannot write in utter silence, even if I manage to tune out much of the background noise. If I turn on music, I hear the music and am completely distracted from wordmaking.
In any event, the process is much as you describe, and since you’ve chosen a poem for me, I’ll begin with that one as an example, noting that while when I complete a poem it does have full meaning for me, when I go back to it, having forgotten much of that original meaning, I have to create it all over again, to become a new reader of my own work—the fact of which I am actually very proud. I may have found a word cluster such as “It’s always them” in Maggie’s poem which immediately signaled to me the notion of a slightly paranoid rightest, seeing the world filled with intruders moving in upon his previously safe reality. Thus, for such a being it creates a “storm of voices” pestering the individual like “the flies” of Sartre’s Les Mouches or Aristophanes’ “wasps” “darting” as....I probably thought logically of the “swarm” but as I often do, changed the expected word to challenge my own too-predictable narrative logic to “sworn” (while still retaining the relationship of the words “storm,” “swarm,” “sworn.” But once I found “sworn” it just naturally fell into the idea of how such an individual might deal with the pestering outsiders, putting them in “gunsight.” And there is almost a joy in that decision, of putting the “finger” to the trigger of what he sees as the “inordinate” or excessive “evidence” of their being out to get him. Of course, the words “sworn” and “evidence,” etc. also take us back into Aristophanes’ courtroom where we see a man addicted to being part of the jury, of deciding the fate of other’s lives.
For a moment through the dash (punctuation when it exists being important in my work) we rest in the “gap” between the finger and pull of the trigger which when breached will result in the emptiness (another “gap”) “left” by the “things that ram and rise” resulting in or calling up the “repose” he seeks, a world without all “thems.”
In the full poem, of course, he has not yet pulled the trigger, so here he is only imagining in the “gap” of time any repose he may feel, which is actually replaced in the full poem by “guilt” and his own having to hide out from judgment.
In these particular poems, moreover, I created another kind of “Oulipean” limitation by taking only the first words of lines from other poets, reading down. Again this is not a fixed process, I would have taken three or four words, played off of those words, perhaps dived into another poem to steal another few “first words” and then back into their associations, etc. But it is far more difficult to work toward a somewhat coherent meaning using that process.
And yes, you are also right: the little “story” I have just created is actually a metaphor for the process of the poem itself, the poet being bombarded by the storm of voices as he attempts to move forward time and again to make meaning out of random language, much the way we think. The gun is the voice itself, holding off before letting go with the language that will make up the poem that eventually becomes a house in which the poet might live or hide himself within, making its own skin, so to speak.
I certainly don’t see myself as a shy person, but I once was so terribly insecure, ages ago, that I feared even communicating with others. It is odd that I finally found a way of expressing the hidden I—buried one might say in my poems—by using the words, the languages of others. A similar pattern arises in my prose writings where I often write about another’s poetry, fiction, dance, music, art, etc. in order to get to know them better rather than directly confronting them, sitting down and simply talking. I am, at heart, a nervous conversationalist, and like many such gregariously terrified people talk mostly about myself. To know my friends I need to read through their creative contributions, to take a back route so to speak in getting to know them better.
So one might say, a poem for me is a way of expressing my real self somewhat through others’ language. That is perhaps why my poems read so ”diffractedly,” moving as they do between the poet and the other, cautiously creating meaning as the words pull poet and reader on together like electrons bouncing through light.
Nietzsche has it that every work of art begins as an instinct in the body. This instinct/impulse – in my own construction of it, I call it energy – for our purposes, let’s refer to it with another word, emotion. The issue of emotion in poetry is not simple.
Much of what’s happened in the development of contemporary innovative poetics has to do with an aversion to a simple emotionalism or sentimentality that plagues what we call “traditional” poetry: a narrative statement of a scene, calling on the reader to merely sympathize with the poet’s sentimentalized experience of that scene.
Innovative movements are often received as being devoid of emotion. Robbe-Grillet and the writers of the New Novel were so criticized. As were the Impressionists. While your work certainly never falls into sentimentality, I find it significantly, even powerfully emotional, driven by emotion. In the untitled lines that open Dinner on the Lawn (1979, 1982) you write:
that the word
to be convincing
has pretty much
a simple emotional
Using the word “emotion” for the 2nd time, in “Letter to Post” from the Section, “Art’s a face to define what’s behind,” from Maxims from My Mother’s Milk / Hymns to Him: A Dialogue (1988), you write:
coin this lead
ly to were? Whereas
In “The Plague,” from Along Without, you write
…..The strongest emotion seams
never to put ledge over its edge
In “Storm,” from Dark (2012):
Perhaps I am the motion in the dark
to become emotion—a lover
of the possible impossibility
of no thing.
In “The Secret Saint” (Dark, 2012), that word “emotion” transmogrifies into “felt”:
wrapped in felt. Whose hands had surrounded
it, whose had laid the body upon
the material of nonexistence, whose
had rolled the thighs of the would-be
saint into the linen, the felt, felt
the flesh, the telling, hallucinatory and skeptical
as truth is always……..
Were I writing an essay, I would find a rich abundance of language and meaning for analysis. Since this is an interview, let me just say how much I am moved by and appreciative of the range of sophisticated complex stunning and challenging emotion you achieve, then turn that into a question: what role does/can emotion play in writing poetry? what are its dangers? how do you (how does one) achieve it? manage it? etc.?
A fascinating question, Martin, and one I’ve never actually thought carefully about.
I am so emotional by nature, at times a veritable “drama queen,” that I never even imagined that emotion would not be visible in my poetry. But I realize I do work very hard sometimes to quash and control it in certain instances.
First of all, in some of the early volumes, particularly Maxims from My Mother’s Milk the work itself is built on so much comic irony, occasionally even involving purposeful camp, that the true emotions that I express throughout are controlled or perhaps we should say “contexualized,” tamped down by the ridiculousness of the language itself. But then comedy itself is a very strong emotion, as Bergson reminds us. In laughing we are expressing a kind of controlled anger or disgust, mocking or scolding ourselves and others for our/their behavior. Using maxims was itself, as I noted in the epigram, a silly thing. Maxims are a kind of “pretend knowledge,” often an inversion of what most people believe (as Wilde continually makes clear). In its illogical logic it turns belief on its head, pretending to be logic when generally it is just wit.
Notice that in the poem you quote from Maxims the emotions “sent” out into the world immediately get coined into lead, through a pun leading to the past tense of something already over with (“were”) instead of landing where you have expected, into some where.
In both the quote from Dinner on the Lawn and Along Without I restate in different ways that if you’re going to express your emotions in poetry you have to make them complex, and not let them fall over the “edge of the ledge” into pure bathos. In the quotation from “The Secret Saint” I was thinking almost of the ancient religious pieists—influenced perhaps by the dark shrines we encountered, if you recall, in the Castello Argonese on Ponte Ischia in my stay on Ischia with you and your wife Rebecca—in which by simply rolling up a dead body, one of their “secret saints,” in winding sheets, they might have responded to the cloth of linen or felt into the sensation of their fingers against the dead man’s flesh, given that, perhaps, it might have represented one of the few times they would have been permitted to touch another’s body. So this is a very sexual emotion that am trying to explore here.
But then it is also somewhat comic since the “secret saint,” one of “my own kind,” is the poet Ray DiPalma, whose work I’m writing through in this poem, whose almost monkish sense of learning and writing I am satirizing. And you’ll note through the repetition of phrases and images the poems itself becomes a kind of “winding sheet” that reaches a crescendo of an almost hallucinatory chant.
Every time I would visit Ray, he would take down books from his small library and show them to me—generally books I had in my own library—holding each book carefully in his hands before passing it over like it was a holy relic. Obviously, he fetishized books, something I adored about him while at the same time recognizing the absurdity of the fact, at least from my perspective, having given away, as you well know, my quite substantial library.
In all of these cases you might say that in expressing my emotions I am simultaneously holding back, not leaping over the ledge the way poets who I cannot bear such as Louise Glück does, for instance, in her poem “Hyacinth” where she ends her “tribute” to the flower with someone bending over it:
They could not wait
in exile forever.
Through the glittering grove
the courtiers ran
calling the name
of their companion
over the birds’ noise,
over the willows’ aimless sadness.
Well into the night they wept,
their clear tears
altering no earthly color.
Everybody here is expressing emotions: the noisy birds, the sad willows, and someone—either the “courtiers,” the “willows,” or the hyacinths themselves— madly weeping into the night. If ever there was an example of the long-demeaned device of personifying nature, look to her poems, particularly in The Wild Iris. I love flowers, but they have never spoken to me, and I would be very disturbed if they tried to. This is what I might describe as a messy, totally sentimentalized writing as you mention above that all too often appears in establishment poetry.
It is precisely this leap into the emotional vortex which I try to resist. Increasingly in Writing Through, my poetry is filled with love, anger, frustration, fear, even hate. But god forbid if I’d ever dare to grab the reader around the neck and try to make him feel what I feel. If the emotion doesn’t come out of the language then it isn’t a real feeling, but only an occasion to talk about what you might like to feel about something but can’t rise to the task, probably because the words never asked for it or even took you close to the emotion you were seeking.
But then, I never am “seeking” to feel anything; that just happens as the poem moves me forward; and as we all know movement can consist of motion and emotion both. Something “moving” can take me to some other place or into a fit of grief, but it’s the words moving me, not me moving them that truly matters.
I’ve been working with 10 of your poetry books:
Dinner on the Lawn (1979, 1982)
Some Distance (1983)
River to Rivet: A Manifesto (1984)
Maxims from My Mother’s Milk / Hymns to Him: A Dialogue (1988)
Along Without (1993)
An Apple, A Day (1993)
The Walls Come True (1995)
First Words (2004)
That’s a span of 33 years. I see many similarities, and I see differences in those books, some books cohesive stylistically, some cohesive thematically. Could you talk about what preoccupied you, personally, aesthetically, politically/socially, differentiating each of those books along this span of time?
And where are you planning to take us?
Well I don’t think it would be interesting going book by book to relate how they came about. Let me just say that all of the books are related within their own pages thematically. There is a logic to the placement of each poem and there is an attempt to create an overall rhythm and thematic structure—although when I say thematic, I don’t mean narrative; although obviously works such as Along Without and The Walls Come True are also narrative works as well, the former using small passages from fiction to create dialogue against which the poems react. The latter work grew out of another of my many pseudonyms’ (Claude Ricochet) attempt to create a sort of memoir of his childhood in France during World War II through prose poems. The rest of his books and films are referenced in my fiction (written under the pseudonym of Joshua Haigh) Letters from Hanusse. So even my anatomical fiction is in some respects related to my poetry.
Probably the least integrally connected is the first book, which simply consisted of the best poems of the day, a revised version getting rid of some and adding others. But in Some Distance, a working through of my familial relationships, and in River to Rivet, a mock-manifesto that nonetheless does chart out my poetic territory of the time, there is a careful pattern to the positioning of all poems. And so too with the twin series of maxims and hymns which also represent my male and female polarities both with regard to my parents and probably within myself.
After was my attempt—as someone who doesn’t know any language well enough to call myself a translator—to recreate poems in English from Russian, French, Italian, German, Norwegian, Portuguese and other languages, which is after all what any great translator does. Many of the poems in it are rewrites of English-language works, also serving as translations or what Jack Spicer describes as being “after.”
The later books such as Bow Down (which you don’t list)—which was a complex layering of reading simultaneously through Italian poetry and John Baldessari’s art—and the last two works you mention, First Words and Dark are more chronologically linked in relationship to when they were composed, but even there I move poems around when necessary to create important thematic links.
Generally speaking you can say that the first several books were more structurally formed as well as being themselves about genre and poetic forms, while from Bow Down on the poems opened up into an almost romantic dialogue between me and other poet friends through very loosely structured devices, and accordingly don’t have the same thematic interconnections. Form has been replaced by feeling, although I’ve always written equally, I hope, from mind and heart. But there is something truly intuitive about the latter books that with the heavy punning, dissociative devices, and other poetic forms was pushed to the background in the earlier writing.
I have perhaps two books of poetry left in me before I commit myself entirely to the prose of my annual memoirs of which I’ve already published 14 volumes, my queer cinema compilations, and perhaps a return to drama as Kier Peters, another way of losing myself. Since 2000 I have written about 60 poems to date writing through specific poet- and fiction-writing friends which I plan to publish under the title Writing Through. Perhaps with another 20 or 30 poems I can let it go, maybe with even fewer. That book encompasses re-written poems from a work I did in the early Millennium titled “Between,” wherein I wrote a poem writing through a poet’s work and then sent to on to the poet asking him or her to write through my own work or that poem in particular. The results were highly mixed, with so many mystifying and frankly not very interesting responses that I abandoned it. Some of the poets, yourself included, Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein, and others wrote wonderful poems, some of them since published elsewhere. But I felt, in the end, “Between” just wouldn’t hold up as a complete work, so I took my poems and rewrote them into different poetic forms instead of what had originally been a prose poem format. And they too turned out much better.
And then years ago I began a very long narrative poem written through my own work and everybody else, what you might describe as my version of Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography. And I may someday return to that.