Vomiting gold in Arcadia

A conversation between Marty Cain and Joe Hall

Photo of Joe Hall (left) by Patrick Cray. Photo of Marty Cain (right) by Kina Viola.

Note: Joe Hall and Marty Cain met over the internet in the mid-2010s, and since then, they’ve corresponded, read each other’s work, swum in gorges, and played in a punk band, Joyous Shrub. Joe currently lives in Buffalo, New York, and Marty lives in Ithaca, New York (although Joe also once lived near Ithaca for a brief period). In this cointerview, they discuss their books — Marty Cain’s The Prelude (Action Books, 2023) and Joe Hall’s Fugue and Strike (Black Ocean, 2023) — and matters concerning locality, labor, and the relationship between art and political action, among other subjects.

Asleep in the stream, I ask you to hold my hand
but you touch my leg, my neck parts, so I could not hold your hand
in the dream in the crumpled Taco Bell wrapper of who will be our destroyer
flattening nazis, popping trolls, morning slips between the cheeks of sleep[1]

Marty Cain

Marty Cain: In an interview with Evan Gray on the Train/Car podcast, you discuss how the titular fugue/strike dynamic plays out across your book, with the “fugue” aspect mapping onto the “Fugue” sequence and the “strike” aspect mapping onto the long, research-based poem about garbage strikes that serves as the centerpiece of your book. This tension — between poetry as an aestheticized field for imaginative flight, versus poetry as a technology for political utility — is really fascinating to me and is something I’m thinking about in my book, too, especially given that Wordsworth’s original Prelude famously triangulates personal poetic interiority with the French Revolution. Do you see the “Fugues” and “Strikes” of your book as necessarily divergent entities? Where do they overlap? Can a fugue be a strike, or vice versa?

Joe Hall: I can see that interplay in your work, for sure. It’s a happy animating force.

The “Fugues”: my life was full of disorienting changes; so was the world around me. Go with it. I gave myself permission to riff, freely, between everything inhabiting my psyche, to make the range of reference wide, to swerve between moods (or discover the ways in which they composed each other), to try to summon something that felt immanent in my experiences, knowledge, hatreds, and desires. And to find a repetitive musical structure for those things.

The “Strikes” originated from intensive historical research on militant actions involving waste and waste work; it always had a firm external and already politicized subject. The modes diverge in that sense.

When it comes to trying to make distinctions between poems that may be aestheticized fields for imaginative flight and poems that are a technology for political utility, any assessment of this can only be made through a thick understanding of the contexts of their publication and reception. I am wary of idealist claims about the value of aesthetics or the political capacity of a poetics outside of this thick context. In general, we overestimate the political efficacy of most poetry in the United States because most circuits of distribution and reception are separate from those of meaningful political struggle.  

That said, there are two poems that are neither “Fugues” nor “Strikes” that I was able to position in ways that were somewhat satisfying. “People Finder, Buffalo” imagines killer Buffalo cops (Justin Tedesco, Todd McAlister, Nicholas Parisis, Joseph Cook) killing each other. It uses full names and has threads to follow to learn more. And will surface on the first page of results of some searches using “[cop name] Buffalo.” I’ve also read it several times in Buffalo and will continue to do so. Does the poem have political utility in these contexts? Does it help build/triage narratives about our city? Does it bring those narratives closer to that audience and closer to where they have any semblance of political, economic, or collective power? Will a cop read about himself killing himself and realize he has not been spared the oblivion which Brandon Shimoda suggests agents of state violence rely upon? Maybe. But probably not. 

The other poem, “The Wound,” commemorates the disruption of a Buffalo School Board meeting via song — an action that included several friends. Activists were not allowing board meetings to continue until one of its members, Carl Paladino, a local developer, was removed from his seat for innumerable racist and destructive actions. I got “The Wound” published in The Buffalo News. But I worry the poem isn’t specific enough and places more emphasis on the action and not the organizing that led to it.

Cain: You mention the necessity of considering the political “work” of poetry in relation to its context of production and publication, and I’m struck by the fact that you’re not only engaging with Buffalo in your poems but publishing in Buffalo-specific venues, e.g., The Buffalo News.And you also had a poem reproduced on a bus shelter in Buffalo, right? A lot of critics would make the mistake of arguing that small press poetry basically has no geography and lives on the internet; I don’t agree with this, but even still, I think your choice to publish in spaces that will only be seen by Buffalonians is an interesting one and distinguishes you from a lot of other small press poets. What’s the role of locality in your writing? 

Hall: That’s right. I had a poem on a bus shelter thanks to Just Buffalo and the fine workers of the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority. I didn’t know (and don’t think Just Buffalo did either) that the shelter was across from City Hall, which is soaked in the blood of Martin Gugino. If I’d have known, I would have picked a different poem.

Buffalo, the local, is also what’s at hand. I walk around the city, drink the sediment of Buffalo pipes, breathe its air, mess around in its wounded dirt. I need to work outward from my sensory world — the color of the sweater of someone walking down Rhode Island Ave — into what has produced it.

Living in Buffalo has also foregrounded the local in my writing because it’s an extremely poor city. It’s a city where the local machine, subservient to the provincial developer class, has allowed life-sustaining municipal services and infrastructure to fall into disrepair through disinvestment, privatization, expanding police budgets — the whole neoliberal city story. Every time I step out the door, I’m posed with the question, How the fuck did this happen? What are the processes at work and the actors? How are people surviving this? What are those ambulances doing next door? As you say, poetry is a technology for understanding; I turn to it.   

you asked me what poetry could be
Buffalo Free Rapid Transit’s tracks river the mirror, riddle
the mayor and stops shuffle, backtrack, the knight’s move
through Forestlawn, for you see the legislation
it’d also have to convey the dead who were for so long
stranded, bags in the snow[2]

Cain: You’re a Buffalonian, but while you were writing much of this book, you lived near Ithaca (where I’ve lived for the past seven years), and you were working at the Catherwood labor library at Cornell, which you credit as the archival jumping-off point for your garbage strike poem. I see a lot of Ithaca in this book — especially in the “Fugue & Fugue” sequence — but I wonder if you have more to say about how its geography did or did not influence Fugue and Strike.

Hall: Buffalo can feel like a sprawling, shaggy city: endless blocks of one-hundred-year-old two-story houses telescoping backward. In the sense-numbing grip of eleven sunless days in January, I feel like I can drive all over the city and never get anywhere (though I love it, I do). Or during the Buffalo blizzard, people were trapped in their houses for days and could go nowhere.

It’s easier to take lyrical flights through Ithaca and Tompkins county’s geography, to slide from the quasi-urban density and monumentality of campus to a small town (Newfield, where I lived), with houses melting into fields and woods, on a bus, which stopped only thirty yards from our apartment. To go from swimming below a waterfall to a meeting in town about two-track systems in Venezuela. Its slopes invite crossing movement, a happy slide into multifariousness, I think. This has to do with its small size, solid municipal and activist infrastructure, and topography. When writing some poems in Fugue and Strike, I would transpose that quality of movement onto Buffalo, imagining poems that transformed Buffalo’s decaying, atomizing, car-centric infrastructure while retaining the city and the people I know as they are. It gets proleptic.

Ithaca, as an Ivy League college town and the remnants of Boomer utopias, also has formations of extreme wealth in close quarters with poverty, cosmopolitan-minded transplants in the professional strata commanding the labor of people with intense local attachments. It’s a powder keg of class resentment. As a retail worker there, I was revolted by the behavior of the people I rung up; at the co-op, during my lunch break, I could feel resentment oozing from the cashiers. There would be no “vomiting gold” or “jacked Dads of Cornell” without Ithaca. That said, I’m sure you could add a lot more texture to Ithaca.                                                                                                                                             

atoms of talk bounce in cylinders down Green St, predictive tongue
in the aleatory frame stream of vaticides
in the valley of food, jacked dads of Cornell blowing warp whistles
tech bros seduced into a sort of almost graspable
grammar, pleasure without vulnerability, rob them[3]

a garden littered with thousands of stomachs, the crows
hovering and endlessly pecking […]

it is 3 o’clock. the luxury condos rupture the Commons
& the stomachs pulsate[4]

Cain: What you’re saying about movement and flight in Ithaca makes a lot of sense to me, and my writing of The Prelude was shaped by similar transpositions: on one hand, moving through idyllic rural spaces, where I often write; on the other, working within Cornell, a site of institutional power that often pretends to be outside geography. It’s defamiliarizing, and part of it — as you suggest — has to do with Ithaca’s compressed scale, and that’s one thing I like about it, especially as a poet. As you say, it’s a space haunted by failed utopian ideals, and its contradictions are strikingly visible: Cornell and Ithaca College literally loom above everything that’s beneath — gorges, pastoral beauty, gentrification and poverty, jacked dads, Wegmans, strip malls, and waterfalls — and the logics of power are strikingly visible. It forces me to think constantly about the kind of intellectual labor that happens within academic institutions and which communities it actually serves (or doesn’t). I share your misgivings about idealized appeals to US poetry’s political utility, but I do find it to be a really useful technology for thinking through these kinds of local contradictions — like it does for you in your poems engaged with Buffalo.

You left academia for a while and have previously referred to yourself as a “deprofessionalizing academic,” but you’re once again teaching in a university. I’m a few years behind you in this process, but I’m similarly struggling with my status in this profession and what it means for my work as a poet. In the United States, the academy has been the most viable institutional presence for poetry since New Criticism (at least). And especially since at least part of your research methodology in Fugue and Strike was facilitated by academic infrastructures — and I’d argue that the garbage strike sequence, in particular, functions as a hybrid poetic/scholarly work. I’m wondering how you currently view your poetic process in relation to research and the university.

Hall: My sympathies. You’re in a tough place.

After I received my PhD in 2018, I tried to leave academia twice. I worked at a bookstore and cannabis farm and did landscaping and furiously applied for better-paying, nonacademic jobs that provided health insurance. Nothing. But as I approached forty, with twenty years behind me making less than a living wage almost all of the time, I got an increasingly rare full-time (but not tenure-track and year-by-year) position teaching.

I love research. I take notes, keep files, construct timelines, flesh out definitions, follow discussions. But this four-four teaching load leaves only splinters of time for it. That’s been the case most of the time. So when I found myself working part-time at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations library and discovered I could do research in this incredibly deep archive of labor history and literature on my down time and call it training, I flung myself into it. As much as I want to try to write a big, meticulous book of labor history or labor literature or at least some articles, a lifetime of economic and professional precarity punctuated by chronic illnesses moved me toward organizing and compressing that material through poetry — a medium that can be nimble, concise, and suggestive. More importantly, the poem feeds the archival materials the university encloses into a form that doesn’t take a feast of time to enjoy.

What my lack of time can’t take away is that I’ve learned how to think and understand the world in a way I’m happy with. That is partly the result of the university, but it’s also the result of the totality of my experiences and relations — working a register in chronic pain is research. I kept a file on that. Here in Buffalo, the friends with whom I live my creative and intellectual life are not in academia. They dropped out: one quit his job as a history prof to become a journalist. One quit her PhD program, a semester away from completing her dissertation under the direction of an internationally renowned feminist scholar; one used to get on buses in Brazil dressed as a clown and pretend to rob it for laughs and tips. My research involves knowing them and finding recipes to cook for them. They, shaped as they are by their academic training and not, show up in my poems and contour my process. And here we are, talking. 

I know you’ve had your own experience of academic burnout, and that has led you to chickens. Tell me about chickens and serpents. You’ve raised chickens for several years now, and The Prelude features — alongside the porous organs of the speaker — cloacas and “The gleaming beauty of / The chicken headless.”[5] What does the chicken and cloaca invite you to channel, think through, or access (not to instrumentalize the chicken) in your poetry? 

Cain: I started keeping chickens in 2019; I’d just finished my PhD exams and had a desperate desire to work with my hands after doing nothing but reading for so many months, so I built the chicken coop where my small flock currently lives. They’re old ladies now — sadly, no longer laying — but my first summer with chickens was also the first summer I was writing The Prelude, and I became captivated with their otherworldly, dinosaurish behavior, as well as the cloaca, the canal through which both eggs and shit move. You get their eggs, you compost their shit, and the cycle continues. I love my chickens, but they’re pretty foul creatures in general — a far cry from the idealized agricultural imaginary of the pastoral when you’re wiping shit off their eggs. The duality of waste and reproduction — unfulfilled reproduction, I guess — became a useful way for me to think about poetry. I wanted a poetics of both eggs and shit.

AND I ONLY GET THERE BY SHUTTING MY EYES! Lacan was wrong, it’s a macular object lacking a center, it’s a cloaca emitting both eggs and shit, it’s an oven-fresh cookie with an uncooked nimbus A PERMEABLE AIRLOCK RESISTING CLOSURE of lines or sinewaves or hayseed fields for love is a mode of political existence, a serpent in the sewers who slithers from the lid.[6]

Hall: Amazing. Eggs, shit, and the organ where they mingle seems appropriate for a collection haunted by the word “enclosure,” which created these rifts and relations of extraction between town and country, extraction of both produce and the productive capacity of agricultural ecologies themselves. But, as you say, the shit still has an unromantic pungence, and the collection’s cybernetic deer let us know there’s no going back, that the nature-culture relation continues to transform.

Speaking of eggs and shit, one of the things I’m noting in and across the poems in The Prelude is the close proximity of tenderness, the desire to nurture (and reproduce and dream of utopias, Bernadette Mayer–like), with eruptions of violence. It’s a virtual spiral of decapitations. What makes necessary placing the drives to make and destroy life, to make and destroy relations, in the same line or three but also across poems, from the gentle utopianism of “[In the summertime …]” to the regicide of “Stick A Hunk of Metal Within This Form?” Where does this nested compositional rhythm come from? 

Cain: “The drives to make and destroy life” — yes. The tension between tenderness and violence, reproduction and oblivion, and the role of art as a mediating force between these entities is something I’ve been preoccupied with for longer than I’ve been a poet. Art as an escape from cultural violence or as a negotiation with it (I’m thinking of my longstanding obsession with punk music here, a form that directly engages with this dialectic between violent and communitarian impulses — with the circle pit being an obvious example). But this tension took on a heightened form in The Prelude because my writing of it overlapped with my becoming a parent and the combined euphoria and paranoia of new fatherhood during COVID-19. Becoming a dad made me the most tender I’ve ever been, but it was also punctuated by bursts of devastating anxiety — intrusive thoughts, violent nightmares, fears of my kid getting sick, my PhD funding running out and not being able to afford childcare, etc. To say nothing of the larger-scale mindfuck of raising a child in the face of climate collapse and within a deeply violent, heteropatriarchal, white-supremacist culture that ultimately does not value the welfare of children — or of vulnerable people, more broadly — on a structural level. As I fell deeply in love with my daughter — and became surer that becoming a parent was the best thing I’d ever done — I also became angry at my surroundings in an entirely new way.

I think those personal tensions emerge in The Prelude, shaping the compositional rhythm you’re identifying. But that comes, too, from the formal and literary traditions I’m attempting to work through. The pastoral as an inherently violent, extractive form — in its English iterations, one inextricable from histories of enclosure, yes — but also a grammar that’s challenging to escape within literary representations of rural life. Et in arcadia ego!

I want to migrate from civic life with my spouse and daughter and learn nollie heels. I want to own a miniature Jersey cow (don’t look away). I regurgitate reason from my open chest THE FEELING IN ME THE NEST BESIDE ME (don’t look away) outside the motel without a key. I’m tired OK.[7]

Hall: You’ve also written extensively about rural formations of poetic production. Why is it vital to theorize rurality and cultural production at this particular historical moment? And why is it so important for you to flesh out a new poetic symbolic imaginary via your poems that is dead set on defamiliarizing (and spinning into other orbits/grammars) signifiers and narrative structures of the rural? What’s at stake in rewriting the rural?

Cain: In the context of my creative work, probably the most obvious answer to this question is that I’m from Marlboro, Vermont, a town of nine hundred people, and went to high school in Brattleboro, Vermont, population of about nine thousand people at the time. When I started seriously writing poems at age twenty, my undergraduate mentor was the Southern poet Jane Springer, and my earliest poetic models were narrative evocations of the rural South (poets like James Dickey and Robert Penn Warren). At least during this time, poetry and the rural were directly linked for me; writing became a technology for understanding my own experiences in rural Vermont, which — compared to many of my suburban peers at my undergrad institution — were somewhat unique. Right as I was diving headfirst into writing these pastoralized narrative poems, though, several things happened: Hurricane Irene hit Vermont in 2011, worsening the economic downturn that had begun with the financial crisis; the opioid epidemic became a real thing, and many of my former classmates started overdosing or dying by suicide; and I read Joyelle McSweeney’s chapbook, Necropastoral (Spork, 2011). The way I’d been writing about my hometown started to feel a bit icky, and I became committed to — to use your phrase — “defamiliarizing” popular narratives of the rural. Especially Vermont, which is a lot more than an inert landscape of Robert Frost poems and writing residencies.

This commitment has changed a lot over time, but at the moment, I think about it this way: there isn’t anything essential or “at stake” in the rural — it’s a term that has no agreed-upon definition (the US Census simply defines it as that which is not urban). Raymond Williams: “country life has many meanings.”[8] At least within the context of the US, though, “the rural” is frequently rendered as an abjected peripheral space, and historical narratives of experimental art and writing are extremely overdetermined by the would-be cosmopolitan space of the metropolis. I’m interested in the rural not because I want to define it or place boundaries around it but because I think it might allow us to more honestly view geographic space in general — to think seriously about how space is mediated by technology, infrastructure, extraction, the flows of capital — without falling back on simplistic center/periphery binaries. Studying rural space has taught me a lot about cities, too.       

we drive several miles in the truck
with a spider making
a web in the bed
it sways in the wind
the world makes forms
and the king makes fences
to keep us from killing
ourselves on the gorges[9]

Hall: There’s a fascinating double-movement in The Prelude. On one hand, in evoking enclosure at different scales, it’s highly alert to modern conceptions of the commons that recognize that financial capital relies on the production or “discovery” of new commons (from digital to genomic) in order to enact processes of enclosure the extraction. In and across poems, unfolding lines of thought, scenes of action do not reach predication due to the eruption of enclosure. At the same time, the poems present highly aestheticized (beautiful-strange?) moments that read as proleptic imaginations of the coevolution of the technological, social, and ecological, filamented through each other. So the book’s poetics are defined by the rifts of enclosure and a countervailing impulse to escape semantic closure through this eco-sci-fi imagery. This imagery does not stabilize into what we might consider a landscape. That’s how I see it.

we walk to the water
we stick in our tongues
to swallow the droppings
of cyborg deer
we came to murder
the hoofprint moons
like a fucked-up heart
 property rended
of blinking traffic[10]

How would you describe your poetics?

Cain: This is a great question, Joe, thanks. I conceive of poetry as an exercise in translating into language the cultural logics embedded within material and ideological structures. My utopian vision of poetry is that it’s a kind of alchemy, a rendering of violent systems into syntax, music, and narrative in such a way that is both revelatory, allowing us to see things as they truly are, and prophetic, outlining inchoate alternative possibilities. I’m not saying I necessarily succeed at this, but this “double logic” — to use your phrase — animates the work of the poets that most directly influenced this book: Aimé Césaire; Frank Stanford; Aase Berg; and, at his best, Wordsworth. While writing The Prelude, I was thinking a lot about physical infrastructures — highways, railroads, undersea cables — as forms of capitalist circuitry that are both tangible and ideological. In the US, the interstate highway system was directly influenced by Cold War logics, and it also radically respatialized rural locality. In Aase Berg’s Hackers (translated by Johannes Göransson, Black Ocean, 2017), Berg fixates on automotive culture and the highway as an extension of patriarchal violence; for her, poetry is a “hacking” of violent infrastructures, a way to turn them against themselves. This idea has been a significant influence upon my work, and I think it can shape poetry on both an aesthetic and material level. What I find most powerful about poetry is its historically networked, communal aspect — reading series, small presses, mailed chapbooks, email listservs — and the way this network is submerged beneath the cultural field and institutional infrastructures like the academy. It’s parasitic, but it allows us to view the surface differently and to maybe reshape it.

in light like petals in water & end exchange
a SLUGINMYEAR to turn under move a 
light the red-beaded flesh against the variegated
earth unbelievable in its varietal fungus a
FUGUESTATESKY a fernlike sentence end
exchange my ring finger grips the aluminum sweat
the appendage commingled with condensing
moisture the cellular fingers touch the towers &
touch the cracks in the earth pulsate momentarily[11]

1. Joe Hall, Fugue and Strike (Somerville, MA: Black Ocean, 2023), 23.

2. Hall, Fugue and Strike, 37.

3. Hall, Fugue and Strike, 19.

4. Marty Cain, The Prelude (Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2023), 14.

5. Cain, The Prelude, 34.

6. Cain, The Prelude, 34.

7. Cain, The Prelude, 64.

8. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 3–4.

9. Cain, The Prelude, 100.

10. Cain, The Prelude, 100.

11. Cain, The Prelude, 89.