Poets (and creative writers generally) often lament the presence of theory in academic literary discourse. I myself am fascinated by Poetics, which is, of course, the theory of poetry, and a literary conversation that's been taking place for quite some time. One of my favorite texts is Horace's "Ars Poetica." Your poems strike me as wonderfully connected to this tradition. Could you talk a bit about your relationship with theory as a reader and writer?
Though my background is in feminist, queer, and postcolonial theories, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between identity theories and poetics. I love Horace’s idea of “ut pictura poesis” because it emphasizes the roles that temporality and spatiality play in the reader’s apprehension of a poem. If Horace is right, then the poet is a director of sorts. She cuts, filters, and frames the poem’s experiences. For me, all of this relates to the notion of linguistic performativity, which is so important to my poetry and to the identity theories I mentioned above. If we are constantly repeating and enacting identity through language; if we are “trapped” or becalmed in a particular system of representation, then our agency as a writers comes from the subtle shifts and subversions in those repetitions; how we can cut, frame that system in new and surprising ways. I try to accomplish this by incorporating competing, often irresolvable narratives and voices into my poetry. For example, in “He Was Only Half As Beautiful,” a poem I’ve discussed with you, Cate, the speaker simultaneously glorifies and ruins a relationship that’s lost its novelty and freshness. She also tries to play with expected gender roles in heterosexual relationships by placing the male lover in more subservient sexual and psychological positions. Though the speaker “tries on” less normative identities, she ultimately returns to the “femininity” she’s been conditioned to perform.
Returning to Horace’s idea of “ut pictura poesis,” I think that Foucault’s analysis of Velázquez’s Las Meninas really speaks to the ways in which art can create a plurality of meanings and interpretations by playing with the viewer’s/reader’s perceptions. It’s possible to view Las Meninas from a variety of perspectives—the royal couples’, the Infanta’s, the viewer’s, and the artist’s. Refusing to privilege one fixed perspective, Velázquez captures what’s traditionally left out of the frame in the interests of symmetry and consistency. The result is a self-portrait of the artist in a chaotic and plural world. We might even call it a meta-portrait that gets at the process of painting. This notion of multi-dimensionality, of the messiness of reality, is crucial to my poetry. I strive for language that conveys identity and meaning as dynamic, self-conscious performances. If I’m writing an elegy, I want the poem to be conscious of itself as entering into that tradition of longing to transgress the distance between life and death, and past and present. It might sound like a cliché by now, but I do think that every poem is about its own construction. By refusing to subsume the poet’s (or, thispoet’s) hyper self-consciousness I hope to capture the constructedness of identity.
A great many of your poems employ the first-person. Can you talk about the first-person as it functions rhetorically in your work? For example, a reader might be inclined to believe the "I" in any one of your poems is you (an interpretive approach I personally find reductive). Do you see the poems in your first book, Taste of Cherry, as being spoken throughout by the same speaker, or are there multiple voices woven throughout the collection?
I think that it’s tempting to interpret women’s poetry—especially visceral and aggressive poetry written by a woman—as autobiographical. Maybe this relates to the legacy of Confessional poets, like Plath and Sexton. Or, maybe it stems from culture’s implicit association of women with private, domestic space. For the record, there are multiple speakers and personas at work in Taste of Cherry. Sometimes, as in the dramatic monologues in the second section of the book, the costumes are obvious. Other times, the costumes are more subtle and persona-driven. Some contemporary poets and critics claim, for good reason, that we’re trapped in our subjectivity, that we write what we know. I’d like to think that this knowing can encompass more than just personal experience. Bert Cooper, my favorite character on Mad Men, once said: You are the room you’re in. I couldn’t agree more. Most us experience identity as fractured and multiple, framed by context and history. I’d like to think that the many speakers in Taste of Cherry are manifestations of the book’s obsession with power, both as a practice and a system. I recently did an alumni reading at University of Maryland. In his introduction to my work, Stan Plumly said: “these poems are fascinated by violence; much of it sexual, all of it metaphysical.” This statement made me feel incredibly exposed (in a good way). I think that the speakers in Taste of Cherry grapple with the violence that our cultural obsession with naming and classifying inflicts upon the individual. I hope that the book’s speakers, and its subjects—which are sex, travel, high and low culture, etc.—function as figurative containers for its themes. Trying on different costumes enables me to explore how society and culture empower some people and disenfranchise others. Often, the speakers in my poems are consumed their own internalization of this violence, as in “Strange Zippers: A Poem in Which the Heroine _____,” when the speaker says, “…just once//you want to be the one who gets to say, Places everyone, places. /The death scene is about to begin.”
Lyric and Narrative. The two poetic species are often spoken of as representing opposite poles of the aesthetic spectrum. True or bogus?
Right away, I think song (lyric) and story (narrative). In my work, the two forms are anything but oppositional. They’re more like partners in a co-dependent relationship; it’s unhealthy and confrontational at times, but they speak to and overcome one another’s weaknesses. I’ve been highly influenced by the lyricism and musicality of poets like Mina Loy, Hart Crane, Federico García Lorca, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I’ve also been obsessed with Larry Levis for almost as long as I’ve been writing poetry. His sprawling, incantatory narratives prove to me that it’s possible to value song and story equally. Of course, there’s also the issue of gender. I find it highly amusing that the Modernists, especially Eliot and Stevens, were obsessed with overcoming the girly, domestic lyric and embracing the manly, epic-arms-and-the man tradition in poetry. French feminism has since claimed that linear narratives are violent and reductive.
My own project as a writer is to stage scenes and situations that enact crises of thought and action. A certain amount of this involves telling stories, thought not necessarily stable, linear narratives. This is where my lyric and narrative impulses merge. I believe that the sounds and rhythms of poetry can convey the intuitive undercurrents of a situation or experience. There’s a sonic density in many of my poems that compliments and even contradicts their narrative elements. Sometimes internal rhyme serves as a transition between places or subjects. Other times, sonic associations create a radical shifts by drawing corollary between unlike objects, as in “Gilead Red”: “Summer garden. Some are wardens.” Though the term might be meaningless at this point, I’d like to think that many of the poems in Taste of Cherry are lyric-narratives. My newer poems, such as “Dear Esteemed Former Professor (Your Beard Always Felt Like a Brillo Pad Scouring My Neck)” and “Catullus Watches the Sky Darken from the Penthouse of Our Late Republic” have been exploring the possibilities of dramatic monologue form, which is a refreshing change.
Dear Esteemed Former Professor (Your Beard Always Felt Like a Brillo Pad Scouring My Neck),
We were happier in the old sonnets, when the espoused
saints rose from their graves to woo us with genetically
engineered tulips. O staged sidewalk encounters
on pre-lapsarian afternoons! How charming you were—
near-sighted, dosed on Nembutal, guffawing when your
bloodhound, Beckett, sniffed my crotch. I mean before
our paperback incarnation, when my nipples turned
like radio dials tuned to my own execution. In the office
where you bobbed up and down on me, I imagined
myself Circe—and you, my casual castaway, adrift
on a wine-stained sea, taking epic pleasure in flogging
my verses over and over only to deliver the same
sublimated verdict. No matter now. I refuse to count
the days I spent clicking my heels inside clinically white
stalls, picking the belladonna berries from my teeth while
the beard-burn bloomed down my neck like displaced STD.
Farewell twill jackets and sweater vests you refused
to dry clean. Farewell sports metaphors and panegyric
pats on the ass. The Muses have gone on holiday,
left behind a skeleton staff and all the lecture hall nymphs
have immolated themselves. So, hush sweet pederast,
and press your hand to this pyre where I’ve charred
your iambic letters, torn from onionskin notebooks,
so tenderly ass-pocket pressed! I will be your Faustian
ending, the blister that never bursts—or worse,
the psoriasis of justice, perverse as a backward shiver,
a blazing brushfire with no source.
Catullus Watches the Sky Darken from the Penthouse of Our Late Republic
Some ideas, like schoolgirls, shake out
their hair and shriek hello! Ergo, my affair
with orgasm and the years of sexual tourism;
that Dantean swerve on a beach in Corsica.
Ergo, I wrote poems against the senate.
I gave up, got fat and practiced come-ons
and coup d’états in the bathroom mirror.
Power, the how to touch it? Old laws appear
again, like forgotten coats, dry-cleaned,
preserved in plastic, to dress the bare pegs
of the closet. These are the late hours
of the republic, the regulation confessions
on live television. Apologize to the silverware,
to the family album, to the shape of the revival.
We (rhetorical flourish) refuse leniency.
We (rhetorical flourish) abhor poetry.
Firnas’s Flight into the Future
In 875 the Caliph of Cordoba commissioned a daredevil named Ibn Firnas
to build a glider and launch himself from a tower. Firnas survived, but injured
his back. Today, the lunar crater “Ibn Firnas” is named in his honor.
Not a prophet, just another supplicant
with false-bottom eyes, dreaming of flight; some frontier paradise
beyond the Court of Lions and the iman’s sonorous lessons.
Just another Icarus hitting the hard deck,
ambition snapped: SPF never god-proof enough
for the Caliphs of Cordoba. Whatever kingdom. Black gall
of the saturnine metal. Brutal opulence of the reflecting pool.
For no real reason, sand fills the cuspidors.
The exterminating angel bears her breast asIbn Firnas—
visionary, stuntman—glides towards the brackets of minarets.
He sees one version of his face against
a pockmarked moonscape (blows kisses). In the other,
he conjures the Hindenburg barreled over in a cloud of fire,
and the gasp-mark of the newscaster’s mouth: Oh, the humanity!
How easy to say that, to know time
the way God does. To see the 20th century as a sunset
after the bomb goes off; the burlesque stage of a disappearing act
that is the engine of our ingenuity.
the center cannot —
the center wolfed down to hysterical gravity.
Megachurch Memento Mori: Upon Seeing an Eight Foot Wooden Cross Strapped
to a Tow Truck on I-10
Do the brethren think we’ve curdled the covenant?
I would repent, or declining the geometry
of intelligent design, dangle from Darwin’s vines
while your testimony erupts like apples shot close-range.
Is there still time to exchange the monster truck
seduction of eternal salvation for a toll road
to New Canaan? O, E-Z Pass for the righteous,
Lot’s coins for the part-time loyalists. Where is
the Mount where the penitent shall be sterilized
and Milgram’s electroshocks zap two freckled boys
tonguing in the bed of a pickup? How perfect!
The insight of a camel crushes the mouth of gospel.
Will you swallow or expel? If you swallow, will He
absolve you? He, who is always there, indifferent
as the internet, sees your morning cocktail, stores it
in the hard drive of heavenly judgment. It isn’t enough
to be born again, you’ve got to invent the sins
of others, embed them in the virulent bathos
of Bible Study. So, when you die, the relatives pillage your
bank account and shove your body into its wedding suit
while your daughters show their tits at pop concerts.
This is what I learn in the venal afternoon somewhere
outside of Lake City, where the air smells of rotten
oranges and car alarms are not the revelations of angels.
Somewhere in darkened movie theaters, teenagers
are teasing the body back into the word and wondering
why Christ didn’t just step down from the cross,
close his own wounds and say, Just kidding.
Blame the atomic ears of corn my mother and her sister
gorged themselves on at a car race near Three Mile Island
the summer before my cousin and I were born. Trace amounts
of Iodine-131 sluicing though our systems; sleeper cells
detonated that August night that my grandmother caught us
amuck in incestuous revelry—Kevin’s flashlight poised
at the threshold of my pussy. Our laughter a minor offense in
a house of graver ones, smitten with Styrofoam and M.A.S.H
reruns. That summer we watched The China Syndrome,
maybe fifty times, and played Whistleblower, dancing like drugged
argonauts in the driveway, our apocalypse shimmering and slurring
off the sun-blasted bulkhead. Such was the logic of 1984,
the buried bunkers and secret wars—in the ultraviolet glow
of my father’s childhood room Kevin’s hand closed in on the bulb
of a flashlight, his fingers reddening as if the blood of our ancestors
pooled there, as if it were our rite to bloom, to devour, to fry,
to sink deeper into the musty mattress, stroking one another
beneath oversized t-shirts as the final signal cut off into color bars.
A black sky at the bottom of a lake. Ice cracking in a deep glass—
a sound like the dermis of a dream. It belonged to a separate
order of things mushrooming above tree line, above the apex
of a stage, its radiated boards. It was the end of the world.
We wanted to die with one finger on the trigger.