Let’s begin with clarity. Literally. It’s obvious, at first glance, that you value clarity in your writing. Once a positive value in literature, clarity has been largely rejected by younger post-modernist poets as overly-direct, even trivial. I’m not talking only about narrative structure, here, but clarity at the level of the sentence, the line—sharp, unoccluded language through which (critics used to assert) meaning might be discerned as easily as objects at the bottom of a pool. If the language of a literary work was so transparent it effectually “disappeared” leaving only content behind, that was considered a real achievement of style. Why do you think clarity receives such a bad rap today? Or do you?
I first began writing poetry in a serious way when I was attending graduate school at UCLA in 1985. I went in thinking I would get a Ph.D. in literature, but it quickly became apparent to me that the post-structuralist/deconstructionist way of thinking that came so easily to so many of my classmates just wasn’t for me, though God knows I admired the braininess of people like Susan McCabe, who was a year or two ahead of me. If the sort of poetry you describe in your question is now in the ascendency, I think it’s partly because so many skillful literary critics of my generation not only teach, but write poetry that values difficulty over transparency. It makes sense that students will try to emulate their teachers.
That said, I don’t know that I’m always crazy for clarity. My favorite poem of the twentieth-century is Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, which isn’t exactly easy. And yet that’s a poem full of odd things and wonderful sounds and unlikely connections—the kind of poetry I aspire to write myself.
I wonder, too, if the pendulum isn’t swinging back the other way? Of all the poetry being written in English today, I think the best of it is being written by the Irish. Few of these poets, even an iconoclast like Paul Muldoon, could be described as lacking clarity. And think of the success a neo-formalist like Todd Boss has had, and Matthew Zapruder’s new book Come On All You Ghosts seems to me more accessible than his first two, and I found the last Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Rae Armantrout’s Versed to be very readable, in the old fashioned sense, didn’t you?
Yes, and I suppose the oscillation back to clarity, coherence, and narrative sense is inevitable. Like politics, we swing one way, then the other. “Difficulty,” though, may not be the same thing as obfuscation. A number of your poems are difficult, but certainly not obscure. I’m thinking, for instance, of the Q & A section headings of one of your recent books, A Few Things You Should Know about the Weasel. In those poems, you favor abstraction over concretion, your normal mode of writing. You write like a philosopher, about philosophic subjects, and even the form of these poems is unusual for you—I would call them prose poems, or poetic interrogations in prose. There are two voices, and I am supposing both voices are yours, a kind of self-interrogation. Is that correct? Could you talk a little about these “Q & A” poems, and how they operate in your book?
I’ve been interested in literary dialogues since I came across Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist (I always misremember that as The Artist as Critic!) and The Decay of Lying in high school, and I’ve been hosting an arts interview program on local television for the past seven years, so the Q & A form is very familiar. I particularly like the idea of a back and forth with two antagonistic aspects of oneself.
On a more practical level, the Q & A’s—I probably wrote ten of them—turned out to be an organizational tool. These poems notwithstanding, when I sit down to write, I’m often consciously trying not to repeat what I’ve done in the past. Consequently, when I’m gathering poems to put in a book, the best ones don’t immediately seem to have much in common. And yet, of course, we return to the same themes again and again, whether we want to or not. Grouping the poems under the general headings of Will, Form, War and Eternity helped bring some coherence to the book.
That said, I think poetry and philosophy sit uncomfortably together. As your question indicates, these poems are written in prose and they reference dizzyingly abstract subjects like “the Kantian Ding an Sich,” but my tongue is mostly in my cheek. There are a number of inside jokes in these Q & A’s, lots of absurd responses to perfectly serious questions. When I was getting my MFA at Louisiana State, I was frequently chided by my classmates and teachers for letting my sense of humor run away with me. I guess it still does sometimes. A Few Things You Should Know About the Weasel was published in Canada, and when I was up there this past summer reading from it, the poet I was most often compared with was Tony Hoagland.
Yes, I can see that, in a distant kind of way. But while your work employs humor and irony, it never gives itself over entirely to wisecracking and wild metaphorizing. It seems more serious than that to me. When I saw one of your book titles, Adventures of the Minor Poet, I expected a strong element of comedy, even self-mockery, but my impression of the book remains serious. My favorite poem, “The Minor Poet to His Predecessors,” begins jauntily enough but by the end—those last four stanzas—it becomes downright serious, even poignant. And later in the same book you take up the theme once more in “Vanitas Vanitatum: Saith the Minor Poet.” The interview “Interludes” (like the Q & A poems) exhibit both comic and tragic elements. How often do you mix the light with the dark in your work?
Despite what I said earlier about always trying to change things up, that’s a pretty characteristic maneuver on my part: the title or the first couple of lines promise a kind of wisecrack, and then things gradually, or quickly, get darker. I suppose that’s just who I am: I have a fairly cheerful public persona, but when I’m alone I’m often quite gloomy. My grandmother was a terrible pessimist, and she passed that on to my father, who handed it to me.
I guess, too, that the work I admire has that persistent back-and-forth movement between light and dark: Browning’s dramatic monologues, Hill’s Mercian Hymns. There’s Stevens with his jokey titles and somber conclusions, and Ciaran Carson, and Bishop, and Dickinson and Shakespeare, of course. If Hamlet is the “poem unlimited,” it’s appropriate that it has so much comedy counterbalancing the tragedy.
It’s interesting: you’re asking about my work, but I keep referring to other poets. Indeed, the poem you mention, “The Minor Poet to His Predecessors,” is made up largely of the names of forgotten versifiers. For all my daily laboring, I fear that’s where my poetry will end up—moldering, unread, on a back shelf in some library’s “special collections” room.
I suppose oblivion stalks us all, both personal and literary, which for a writer is a kind of double demise. But before we sink into despair, I’d like to ask you about your publishing history. I notice that one of your early books was published in Wales, and a more recent book was published in Canada. Two others were published here in Santa Barbara, and your most recent book, Starkey’s Book of States, was brought out by Boson Books, which seems to be an online publisher though your book is handsomely designed and printed on good old-fashioned paper. How did you come to publish two books in other countries, and would you recommend this route to other writers?
Forgive my momentary pessimism. I’d like to be more like my friend Jim Peterson who looks at his poetry this way: he’s free to write whatever he wants, and he feels lucky that there are people out there who want to read and publish it. Really, what more could a poet ask for?
As far as the varied nature and locations of my publishers, I’ve found these small presses through literary directories or word of mouth. Chance, basically. Of course, I’m always grateful to find people or institutions willing to invest time and money to publish a book that very likely will not recoup what’s been spent on making it. What unsung heroes they are, all the dedicated folks who make the non-profit literary world go round, who keep poetry alive and well in America.
Granted, if you asked me, “Would you prefer to have all your books published by Knopf?” I’d say, “Certainly.” But since there are only a few dozen living poets who can claim that privilege, I’m more than happy to have found a number of editors who like my poetry. Dan Wells at Biblioasis, Jack Mohr and Monika Laskowski at Artamo, Nancy and David McAllister at Boson Books, Louie Cortez and Palmer Hall at Pecan Grove—these are some pretty generous individuals.
In many of your poems there is a strange irresolution, as though they are fragments of something larger, incomplete in themselves until they are fit into a broader background, some master-poem you had in mind all along. Almost all of your books are structured this way: a series of poems revolving around a wider subject. Starkey’s Book of States, for instance, adds up to an over-riding picture of life in this country from region to region, coast to coast, often detouring into the historical past, while Adventures of the Minor Poet depicts the trials and tribulations of a decidedly dapper character, somewhat like Berryman’s Henry or Paul Zimmer’s Zimmer. You seem to work naturally by writing books of poems, rather than single poems on various subjects that you later collect into books. Is that true?
I was quite taken with the Dream Songs when I read them as an undergraduate and the Zimmer poems later on. It’s freeing to invent a persona who can say and feel things you’d prefer not to, a kind of evil twin. I guess I rarely write outside of that safety net: people who’ve read my work over the long haul know that when the first-person point of view occurs in one of my poems, the narrator is likely to be describing an event that’s largely imaginary. I’ve found that if the surface details are patently “untrue” in the autobiographical sense, I’m much more comfortable revealing some deeper truth about myself.
But back to your question about the “master-poem.” I’m going to take that as a very high compliment because that’s the feeling I have when reading the collected poems of poets I admire—as though each poem is an attempt to get at something that can’t quite be got at in a single poem. You certainly feel that in Whitman as he takes on the impossible task of trying to describe America. Perhaps poets who spend a lifetime on their craft end up trying to answer a single unanswerable question. Dickinson: “Why am I here?” Stevens: “What is poetry?” Yeats: “Is it really too late for us, Maud?” Sorry, not funny—though maybe not so far off the mark.
Obviously I’m not in the same league as these writers, but if each of my books circles around a broad topic, then possibly all these books together are trying to answer a single question I’m not quite aware yet of asking.
One last question (if you can answer this, you’ll be put on the short list for the Pulitzer Prize). Where is American poetry going from here?
I guess I’d have to answer, “Everywhere.” There are so many ways now to read and write a poem—what an incredible diversity of expression young poets have open to them. I tell them: embrace it. I know poets and critics make their reputations by championing one version of poetry over another, but if I had one wish for the art, it would be that those of us who love it could stop feeling compelled to believe that everyone needs to write the way we do ourselves. On my bookcase right now, the new collection by Kamu Brathwaite is leaning against the Selected Poems of Amy Clampitt. How great is that!
She Feared She Could Do No Better
She’d conjured worse than him,
the bastard, with his dastardly
good looks and sulfurous sense
of humor. She’d sutured deeper
wounds. But she was getting older,
and it was less now like a challenge,
more a matter of survival. Another
sweltering July night in central
Michigan, fissures and fractures
running through last year’s diary,
never mind her day planner. Fireflies
flickered across the parking lot
of her apartment building. She expected
the pampered sluggard any hour now,
and she leaned against someone else’s car,
gazing spaceward, whimpering slightly,
like a dog with a splinter in its foot.
Fortunately, most of her dreams
were still password-protected
though she could feel the best of them
capering off like wild goats, leaving behind
only her most personal—read: worthless—
treasures: the trifles she kept
in the lacquered box she’d bought
in Chinatown, her first-ever love letter,
a punctured red balloon, a mustard-colored
concert ticket, a jaybird’s mottled feather.
Ordinarily, time chugs slowly
but purposefully forward, like a tourist
steamer in a nineteenth-century engraving,
but once in a rare while the steamer strikes
a shoal and sinks, and in those murky moments
when the ocean rushes through the bulkhead
and the air outside the portholes becomes
sea-green and the metal rails in the corridors
grow corpse-cold, decades evaporate
with a shout, or so it seemed to me last night
when you turned finally from my door
and I felt as lonely as the sole remaining
passenger trapped below deck on the S.S.
End of the Affair, my weak lantern
held aloft on the otherwise unlighted stairs.
Some of us are born to hope.
When the dress falls apart on the dance floor,
we understand we’ve been needing to show more skin.
When the drill bit snaps off half-way through the job,
we know that particular beam
was not meant for holes.
We see resemblances
in all things pleasant: hot buttered rum tastes like pumpkin pie,
which reminds us of our favorite November sunrise.
Rarely are we outraged: most likely, as our mothers
foretold, it will all come out in the wash.
To us, even punk rock is joyful music: Joe Strummer yowling
about class solidarity, Exene howling about how good it feels,
to be burned.
A wawling baby sounds like punk rock’s greatest hits.
Held up at knife-point, we are gregarious
with our assailants:
What could it hurt?
And though our children resent our relentless optimism—
sniggering at us to their lovers and friends—
how could we possibly resent them?
They are our beloved issue, our gift back
to the beneficent universe, our very own stardust
As a Firebrand Pluckt Out of the Burning
With this crowd, things can only get worse.
So much cackling and cracking wise, you’d think Moloch had become a stand-up comic.
But what’s to laugh about?
Mildew in the gardens, the peonies blasted and withered, the silkworms all shriveled
to less than silk themselves.
The scud of a bullet hitting just below its target, then skittering off into the brush.
Or a scud missile, its take-off like a stage whisper, its impact like the bellowing of an iron bull.
Paratroopers on the Bridge of Sighs, snipers atop the Sidney Opera House.
Do you prefer captivity or lamentation and wailing?
How would you like your hemlock served? Up, or on the rocks?
The fog burns away to reveal a grove of cedar trees, empty nooses dangling from their branches.
The tabernacles have crumbled to dust.
Dust on the desiccated wheat and on the splintered stones of houses.
Dust on the faces of the women and children lying naked on the plain.
Nestled on the orange Naugahyde couch, TV spinning its tales of mirth and woe, a boy
becomes aware of his insignificance. On the wood-paneled walls, paintings by his
parents’ friends: a barn in a field, a field with a distant barn, a lake at sunset, a barn by a
lake. Above the fireplace, a print purchased through a mail order catalogue: a flock of
mallards skimming low over a cattail-spotted pond, a hunter just rising from his blind to
A break in the regularly scheduled programming for a “full, free and absolute pardon.” Then
back to the football game, which has displanted the other narratives. Upstairs, shotguns
line the wall of his father’s den. A small militia might be formed from this very house on
the corner of two nothing streets in a nothing city. But all the firepower is reserved for
Suddenly ill, the boy rises from the couch and stumbles toward the toilet: God is a man with a
short trim beard, a furrowed brow, burst capillaries in his squash-shaped nose.
Loudmouthed and venal. Smelling of vinegar and sardines.
A Friend’s Novel I Can’t Seem to Finish
I turn out the light,
the book bares
its spine to me
like an angry lover
with her face
to the wall.