Eric Baus is the author of three books: The To Sound (Verse/Wave Books, 2004), Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009), Scared Text (Center for Literary Publishing, 2011). A fourth book, The Tranquilized Tongue, is forthcoming from City Lights. He recently wrote a series of commentaries "Notes on PennSound" for Jacket2. With Andrea Rexilius, he co-edits Marcel Chapbooks. He lives in Denver.
[ERIC BAUS: UNSHAKEN, WELL-STIRRED]
an interview with David Tomaloff about the state of the poet’s state
Eric Baus is a poet who believes to his soul that he will be born into his next life a skate park. To be fair, that isn’t true, and Eric has never—as far as I know—expressed such a longing outwardly. But Eric Baus is a wizard of the wavered word and a sultan commander of untold ragged hordes of glitched chaos syntax machines. He is the namer of nether-sounds and neither-beasts, and he is, as one might easily argue, a full contact practitioner of the word-life as well as the word lif
Eric recently broke his humerus in a skateboarding mishap, and, in a moment of epic purgation and meticulous poetic style, he marked the evening’s close by vomiting painkillers all over one unsuspecting x-ray machine. My friends, I submit to you that, as long as Eric Baus is alive, poetry is far from dead—
one either lives up
or one does not
1. “REGARDING ERIC BAUS” for Eric Baus, not by Eric Baus
[dt] Thank you for taking part in this, Eric. I first became aware of your work some time ago when a Facebook friend, Cory Zeller, posted a video of you reading “THE TO SOUND” from your book of the same name. Your style struck me immediately as unique. In many ways, I was reminded of another of my favorites, Andrew Zawacki. Your styles are both explorative, and, in a live setting, your work doesn’t rely on bombast. There is this sense of comfort, mantra, and wisdom present in your careful unpacking of the text.
To begin, can you tell us a little bit about your general process and approach to writing? How does a poem usually begin for you? How do you keep a fresh perspective on the process? I, for instance, find that it becomes necessary to switch between my four or five ways of working, or the media I’m using (text, photography, sound), the minute I am too certain about the way it works. I remember a photo you had posted of a document in which you had diagramed sentences out of the existing text—erasure, essentially. That wasn’t really a question, was it?
Thanks, David! It might be easiest to just describe some of the steps I went through to make a recent poem and talk about process that way. So, I'm working on a short poem called "Blister Sect" right now. There is a line: "The history of a stem is another stem" that is an erosion of the sentence "The history of a system is, in turn, another system." from an anthology of translations of Russian Formalist poetics that a friend gave me. The title "Blister sect" echoes "Study for a Glider Nose, Blister section" (a big piece of molded plywood at MOMA that Ray & Charles Eames created in 1943 for a military aircraft). The word "ion" shows up in the poem, which is the detached completion of the word "sect" (="section") from the title. Its meaning is gradually emerging for me out of various interactions and processes, as well as habits connected to the other poems I'm currently writing. There is a figure called "the mirage" that has been popping up in some of this new work, and in this case its opposites appear as "the mirage's antonyms." The first line is: "The mirage's antonyms divested their antennae."
I recently learned about the process of sintering, a method of creating solids from powders through a heating process. I encountered the word sintering in the work of Markus Kayser and I liked how the word "sintering" evokes "cinder" (which it is etymologically related to) but also how it evokes "splintering" or "centering" as well. The word contains parallels and oppositions in its sounds. So, I pay attention to the meaning of the word, its history, as well as the ways in which it is unstable and emits alternate versions of itself (its phonetic isotopes). The raw material of the poem (its dusts) comes from various sources, but I'm working with it until it fuses into a micro-narrative that could be experienced as a solid, with a new quality or potential for directing energies that it didn't originally have. I would say that the poem contains an idea or a cluster of related ideas, but the ideas emerged out of disparate impulses, many of them being invisible to the reader upon first contact.
I think what this does, in practical terms, is that it occupies my mind with technical details of construction to the extent that it helps me avoid the uninteresting patterns of my daily thought. I re-read and re-listen to the tiny bits that I am gathering, and in those pauses, vibrations, reversals, and acts of assemblage, I come to know some small aspect of the world in a new way. I wouldn't expect a reader to recognize or painstakingly decode the reference points that came together to make a specific line in the poem, but across the space of a book or even within a cluster of several poems, I tend to synthesize, amplify, and extend aspects that might have surfaced only briefly elsewhere. I'm interested in the extremely particular (the grain, the ion, the ephemeral), as well as the collective (the gathered, the transformed, the extended).
I’m particularly drawn to the phrase “blister sect” right now. I think it will be one of those phrases that sticks with me—the kind you have to constantly remember not to use.
That first line that you shared, "The mirage's antonyms divested their antennae," strongly implies the plural form of antenna as a sensory appendage found on insects and crustaceans. Your work often weaves into existence worlds that do not exist; at least not in the sense of the world as we in the 21st century have come to view it. Or maybe it is the world as it might exist after we have left it—shards of broken language protruding from the cracks, the ghost-naming and un-naming of that which is left. Or maybe it implies something of the collective consciousness of the natural world itself, with we as unknowing receivers, intercepting its voices, unwittingly glitching on the mythologies of others.
An excerpt from SCARED TEXT (Center for Literary Publishing, 2011)
Blurted, The Ur-Mane erupts, combs through growls to the coarsest salt. A thimble full of eggshell plumbs the egresses for silts. I listen for a second salt, to two horns: locked, alloyed. A moan inverts an ant, burns out in bursts. Its lisps form pools, stinging ice, clips of aberrant grass. See how green I can be. So stirred. A stem empties a range of sheep. A still invents its scene. I plead with all the strays to heap. A shark in a mason jar, scared. Such smooth. So screen. I cut to a tree.
How conscious are you of writing these other worlds into existence, with their casts of characters and alternate rules and laws? Do they speak to you as such and in such terms? Are you seeing these places in your mind, or are you purposely encoding such a place with fragments and overtones of day to day experiences? Bonus points for any information on the origins of the Ur-Mane.
The worlds of the poems tend to emerge from minute details and small shifts of sound and image. I don't usually imagine a landscape and then faithfully render it. The above poem might be seen as a statement on process, although I didn't think about it that way when I started writing it. The phrase "A still invents its scene" suggests that a fragment emerges and is yoked to other image-shards ("I listen for a second salt"=waiting for the echo or shadow of the other sound/image to materialize) through very small acts of attention until it builds a habitat.
Lately, I have been thinking about the multidirectional logic of segments of language within poems. If you write a line that has a kind of structural or sonic integrity, you can often make something else out of those materials or gestures. I often map aspects of new poems onto some aspect of the skeletal remains of previous poems, so, as a reader, you can subtly start to feel that overlapping accumulation. It helps create the illusion of history or of a subliminal backstory in work which throws a lot of new sensory information your way all at once. At a certain point in the reading, enough of those elements build up to create the effect of a world.
Bonus Points Section: The Ur-Mane, as a figure, probably emerged out of a combination of erasing and cutting up other poems that I had written until something close to those letters arrived next to one another. I don't remember exactly. I do know that's how the figure of Iris emerged, so I'm guessing it worked that way too. The letters "Ur" attached to another word might have occurred to me because of the title of Lee Ballentine's 2000's-era neo-Surrealist magazine "Ur-Vox: Journal of the underlying voice". If Ur-Vox was the "underlying voice" then the "Ur-Mane" might be the furry, strange, animistic, animalistic, werewolf-quality of sudden transformation into wildness of something that was previously inert.
And so, cats, obviously. This probably doesn’t need clarification among civilized men and women. I wonder, though: where does the real narrator of the epic poem that is Eric Baus view himself in the actual known natural world? How does the narrator of Eric Baus parse and define his role in context to an impossibly long chain of symbiotic exchange?
Like any reasonable person, I love cats. That's definitely part of my life as a person in the world. But the wonderful cat that I see every day (Hello Virginia!) only appears in glitches and glimpses in my poems. Also, she likes to sit on the keyboard when I'm writing so she's also a small, welcome force of distraction and constraint.
I think the extent to which I'm present in the poems depends on which book of mine you're reading. The "I" in The To Sound (my first book) probably shares the most anecdotes or experiences (finding a lot of dead birds, waking up with my apartment full of smoke, writing letters to a sister, some similar incidents & injuries, things people actually said to me or within earshot, etc.) with the person-walking-around version of me, though there are often huge tonal shifts and re-contextualizations of language from daily life.
In recent work, the "me" in the poems is more of a sensibility than a coherent persona. In my newest book, The Tranquilized Tongue, there aren't any personal pronouns at all but there is a specific vocabulary and kind of imagery I wanted to investigate. Sometimes the poems transcribe my experiences and ideas but usually in microscopic patches that get fused together with other materials. I make certain decisions that probably de-emphasize myself as the speaker because it gives me more freedom to surprise myself in the poems. It's weird though, because a lot of the writing that influences the form of that book is very much tied to an authorial "I" (Joe Brainard's I Remember, for example, though I doubt most readers would overtly see that influence). I really love poems that are driven by an explicit, author-identified speaker, I just tend not to write them.
As I mentioned earlier, I use a lot of processes and procedures in my writing, but these techniques are directed by organic and intuitive impulses. I'm not just a passive assembler when I write. The other day I was making some cut-ups of a new manuscript to generate some small starting points for a new poem, and the phrase "Eric Baus is a result" appeared. My name was part of the language raw material because I had, as a habit, put my name, address, and other contact information on the front page of the file. Something about that feels accurate, to a degree. At this point in my life, my personality, my ideas, and my relationship to the "actual known natural world" have all been fundamentally re-shaped by being a person who writes poems.
Something that I have noticed about your work—something I think a great deal about in my own—is the way that the sound of a line can be made to work like an intricate series of signals—traffic signals, for instance—to control the speed at which the reader moves through a body of text (for the sake of tension, the speed of informational intake, etc.). You often create these exquisite stumbling blocks, these sentences that threaten to implode sonically, but instead, wobble around on the tongue as if it were a lost language, alien yet highly sonorous. How important is sound to you? What role does sound play at the sentence level and/or beyond?
I like the blurs, reversals, and parallel extensions that are possible in writing that's hyperaware of the shadows and residues of its soundscapes. I'm drawn to titles like "Tuned Droves" and "Puma Mirage" which duplicate a phoneme in a way that creates a tiny explosion in your mouth when you say it while also suggesting a surprising image. I like to write in a way so that when you read a poem aloud the language feels guided and compressed but also somehow physiologically intense and moves toward exceeding its own materials. Sound is a chaotic instigation as well as a shaping mechanism/steering wheel. Working with the sentence helps to provisionally stabilize these "stumbling blocks" enough so that, as a writer, I can appreciate their textures and resonances before they decay and I can figure out a way to integrate them into larger, meaningful movements. The sounds force you to linger and notice certain overlaps between disparate ideas and images. Most poetry takes advantage of these effects to some degree, but I think the uncanny nature of sound tends to explicitly call attention to itself the poems I'm writing now. I like the feeling of being overwhelmed by a poem, even if it's performed aloud in a very deadpan way.
Word game: first word or phrase that comes to mind.
Finally, so much has been said this year on the death of poetry as if doing so were somehow any more productive than kicking back the ocean during a tsunami. (How we do love to thrash about and kick, though.) What say you on the death of the undeathable?
When I hear that question, I circulate through all the responses and stances one might adopt. I don't know that I really have much to say about the death of poetry. I can talk, with some specificity, about my own relationship to poetry and circle around the issue that way. Obviously, I don't love everything being published now but that's not a problem. I don't feel at all impeded by the existence of work that doesn't interest me and I definitely don't feel that there is a lack of amazing poetry being written. In general, I'm not a big fan of the (generally arbitrary) "gatekeeper of excellence" mentality or of the position that poetry has somehow collectively failed because it doesn't exist on the scale of mass media entertainment.
It's a great time to be a reader and writer of poetry. If someone is worried about the death of poetry, I would be curious about the expectations and experiences that inform that opinion. If it's coming from another poet, then I think it's probably a good idea to contribute to poetry's energy by engaging in activities in addition to writing one's own work. Even if one feels, like I do, that this is a lively time for poetry, then editing a journal or press, conducting interviews (thanks David!), writing reviews or other forms of commentary, hosting a reading series, working on print or digital archives, and other forms of developing a sense of community are important activities. Also, off the top of my head, these are some contemporary poets I've been reading, re-reading, and listening to lately who I think are exciting: Harmony Holiday, Farid Matuk, Cedar Sigo, CA Conrad, Dorothea Lasky, Fred Moten, Andrea Rexilius, and HR Hegnauer.
Furthermore, skateboarding and the art of x-ray: what can you tell us of your experiences with them? And what might you say to the x-ray machine in your defense?
So, I started skateboarding again last year, after a long break, and it ended badly. I'm still a decent skateboarder, for a skinny guy in his late 30's who was just solidly okay at it when I was younger, but I just can't take the inevitable hard falls anymore. I had to quit for good after this injury. I can still do a handful of basic tricks but nothing too fancy. I was hoping to get good enough to skate respectably at Denver's skatepark when the weather got better. In the meantime, it felt really good to do variations of simple tricks like a
kickflip or a boardslide or a grind or ollie-ing off of things. After going back to it for a bit last fall and not getting hurt a lot, I got too excited when it warmed up for a few days in March and I got hurt trying to wallride. It was not graceful. In retrospect, it was ridiculous to think that the plan I had in my head made any kind of sense. I broke my arm and got a concussion. After laying on the ground for a while, I ended up in the ER where, after 8 hours on a gurney in a hallway I projectile vomited onto the x-ray machine. In my defense, I had been pumped full of painkillers by a rotating crew of half-listening doctors, I threw up entirely clear liquid, and I was very apologetic about the whole thing. Then I went home and ate some marshmallows.
[David, in case you wanted to use this jpg image of my semi-healed arm, here it is:]
[Note: I do. –dt]
The decomposed harp’s repose ruptures, scalds a ring in the atmosphere's ear. Not simple prowess, this is the arrow’s sibling, a white wren. The era of injured roses intersects theorem street, becomes bivalve, spawns a panorama. What part of the swoon is systemic? The pupil's silence nurses starred sects. A red song reverberates blue and the sky annuls its vatic gas.
If the music in a film of ether flutters, this constitutes the sonic signature of the phantom's flight. The result is a condensed dove.
There is no wind, no blood, no sun. There is no sleep. Not water. Not air. No capital, corpse, or crops. There are no wolves or waves. No negative rain. Nor blue. Nor birds. No bodies.
POEM FOR RICHARD FROUDE
Above all he was was a mirror. Much of his soil was gathered from conversation. Nothing is outside the screen. His house was built entirely of redirected rivers. This caused a book of between, a book of plywood and polymers, a book we are never outside of.