David Biespiel interview, with John Hoppenthaler
David Biespiel interview, with John Hoppenthaler
David, there’s so much we can talk about, but let’s begin with the work featured here. Tell us about Republic Café, the book-length sequence from which we’ve excerpted seven sections. The forthcoming volume, due out next year, according to notes you provided, “details the experience of lovers in Portland, Oregon, on the eve and days following September 11, 2001.” As a native New Yorker, living just north of New York City that day, I recall it quite vividly. So many other tragedies have befallen us since then, and there are several anthologies that already attempt to address the tragedy. Why this tragedy? Why now? I suppose one answer might be that the book’s perspective is from a place not directly in the line of that particular fire, but there must be something that drove you to dedicate a whole book to the experience. Also, did you have any literary models in mind as you wrote the sequence?
We think we won’t, and we say we won’t, but even after moments of cataclysm, we forget. Afterwards, we are able, each to our own ability, to live and express our lives with hope and ambition, identity, and aspiration. The art of forgetting, let’s call it, is a way of finding freedom, of locating yourself in balance between desire and fear. That’s the sort of thing I was thinking about at the outset of writing Republic Café. To put it in the form of a question: What does it mean to be in the present moment, in community, in relationship, while at the same time you have to forget so much (personal history, private history, public history, historic tragedies ) to be in that moment—and not only that, all that you have forgotten, the joys and the tragedies, personal and public and historic, make up who you are in that mindful moment? I was interested in writing about the question of that paradox.
I found a lot of model support in: 1) the French noir film, directed by Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour, which dramatizes a one-night stand between a Japanese man and a French woman during the aftermath of World War II; 2) Tomas Transformer’s Baltics, which is a study of the metaphor of the psychological symmetries between national and geographic landscape and private history; 3) Yehuda Amichai’s Time, which is a book of fidelity and infidelity, holy and unholy war and peace; and 4) Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” because… hashtag America. I ’ve some worries about the book. Chiefly, as you imply in your question, that I wasn’t a physical witness or survivor.
So I’m really writing about a received experience of that day—and, well, not that day literally but that era, and the outcome of us living in a time where the United States has remained in a state of continuous, and also controversially hidden, war for seventeen years. Of course, same holds for writing about other major events in Republic Café, including natural disasters, the American bombing of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans. Compared to your experience, say, I experienced September 11, 2001, in the way we often experience modernity as a world-wide community—through the news, journalism, and electronic media. The problem with that way of living through experience is that, afterwards, it doesn’t comport to the way memory works. What I mean is, the images of your memories are fragmented. The images of your memories comprise a version and sequence of events based on your current emotional feelings about the past. But when your “memory” is a clip from television repeated exactly the same always, and those images have no variety to them, then you’re really broadcasting the past to yourself, not remembering it. That has a way of fixing your emotions too, because no matter what emotions you feel, or how your emotions evolve, the images of the “memory” don’t. That’s kind of interesting, and troubling.
You’ve been a reviewer and poetry columnist for many years, publishing the work in many of the most important venues of our historical moment. This means you’ve thought—deeply and often—about what poetry is and what it does in the 21st century. To me, it seems we’re transitioning, generally, from a period style experimental mode in which the reader plays a more active role in the making of a poetry experience to a more poet-centered mode that is both politically motivated and more likely than not more self in the foreground rather than in the background. Is this what you’re seeing? Or are you seeing something else? Or more?
You’re generous. I can only hope my reviews and all that have been thoughtful. These are interesting questions. Thinking of what you intimate as conceptual poetry and political poetry, I’m wondering why you don’t label both as “ experimental? ”
Hmm, I think I was trying to designate the dominant critical period style of a few years ago—a style that Tony Hoagland has suggested was one of “great aesthetic self-consciousness and emotional removal”—as “ experimental ” and contrast that with poems in a more familiar (at least to the public) political register that, at best, keeps itself from prose-like declaration and rant but frequently doesn’t. I realize this is problematic in that many writers of the moment are indeed being “ experimental ” in their approach to the political.
Yes, I agree. I feel on firmer ground talking about all new poetry as experimental and all new poetry as formal. I also think that, while the conceptualist poets and resistance poets have different predisposition toward the imagination and lived experience, as you point out, their outcomes are not that far apart. Both are trying to raise consciousness, if that’s not too provocative a way of putting it. Thought of another way, I read the conceptualist poets as the offspring of the modernists—experimental practitioners of fragmentary imaginings. And I read the resistance poets as offspring of the neo-Augustan poets— experimental poets of social conditions.
I think immediately of Terrance Hayes’s new book of sonnets, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, several of which were first published in the Congeries.
In the very first years of the century, I published a boo k, Wild Civility, that I composed as American sonnets. (I wrote about this “new” 9-line form in the book’ s preface). In writingthe book, I learned that the scaffolding of received form, albeit a form in flux, such as the sonnet, or the sonnet tradition, provided me with an amazing frame into which I could be emotionally biased—while the form was, to use Tony Hoagland’ s phrase, an “emotional remove.” Each sonnet was a radical formal experiment, is what I’m saying. I suppose what I’m trying to say, too, if I’m saying anything at all, is that what political poetry struggles with is the tone of certainty. The recent conceptualist poetry was inflated with certainty about the whole “new way of seeing” as well. I think that’s the problem with —isms generally. All the certainty! What I love about experimentalism in all poetic pursuits is its inherent hunger for uncertainty. To be experimental is to form questions and dramatize those questions inside metaphors. When I said earlier that the outcomes of the conceptualists and the resistance poets aren’t that far-off, what I mean is that I’m of the belief that poets come to the page with, first and foremost, a sense about the awesome mysteries of being. Then we develop fascinations with some aspects of those awesome mysteries, say, a fascination with the forms of fragmentation or a fascination with the forms of social discord. Then we play with those fascinations, and the outcome of the play is a poem; is poetry. If everything goes well, then writing the poem provides us with a fresh, capacious sense of the awesome mysteries of being all over again, because no one poem can capture it all.
To shift this a bit. The quote from Hoagland above is from his essay “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” It’s an essay I return to because I see so much of what Tony writes there revealed in poems I read. Here’s one bit that might speak to what I’m trying to get at: “The last thing [discontinuous] poems are going to do is risk their detachment, their distance, their freedom from accountability. The one thing they are not going to do is commit themselves to the sweaty enclosures of subject matter and the potential embarrassment of sincerity.” It seems to me that, at some point, to write a political poem is to engage the self in a sincere way, take on responsibility, and agree to allow the poem to exist within the enclosure of language and subject matter that, in the end, does not resist naturlisation —to use Veronica Forrest-Thomson’ s phrase —and creates meaning with authorial intent. I’m not sure such a poem can be elliptical, though it certainly can be experimental.
Yes, this is interesting. This divide between sincerity and authenticity. My wife Wendy Willis—she’s a wonderful poet and essayist—has been talking a lot at home about the difference between the two in art and in politics. She’s been reading Lionel Trilling’s Norton lectures, Sincerity and Authenticity, in which he writes about the “process by which the arduous enterprise of sincerity, of being true to one’s self, came to occupy a place of supreme importance in the moral life—and the further shift which finds that place now usurped by the darker and still more strenuous modern ideal of authenticity.” The conceptual poets value the authentic; the resistance poets value the sincere.
There’s an argument to be made, a shorthand argument, from the 2016 presidential election, that Hillary Clinton represented the sincerity position, while Donald Trump represented the authenticity position. Candidate Hillary Clinton, like the resistance poets, represents the idea that, in Trilling’s words, “society requires of us that we present ourselves as being sincere, and the most efficacious way of satisfying this demand is to see to it that we really are sincere, that we actually are what we want our community to know we are. In short, we play the role of being ourselves, we sincerely act the part of the sincere person, with the result that a judgement may be passed upon our sincerity that it is not authentic.” Candidate Trump, on the other hand, was deemed the “authentic” candidate, which is to say he was true to nothing. He was values-less. Essentially, he represented a mode.
I’m not sure my comparison holds up under too much dissection, but one might ask, all the same, how does “ sincere ” political poetry cross over to being inauthentic? My answer is, when it’s imaginative energies, its metaphors, its transformative ambitions are in service to an ideology. In short, when it acts as propaganda.
Perhaps another facet to this consideration might be audience. That is, “ experimental ” poetries seem directed at those who have been provided the education necessary to understand how to approach these poems. That is, a general poetry reader (rare, perhaps, but not as rare as those who enjoy poems that resist the tools we’ve been taught to apply to language outside of university walls) won’t see a poem as political if it can’t be understood as such, while a poem like Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” say, is highly accessible and certainly has more chance of “mattering” than a poem a reader can’t fathom. Are we, in effect, preaching to the tiny choir if our political poems are unread by those who are most at risk, those folks dying every day for lack of what’s found there? In the end, I guess it’s not much different than what we’ve had in the past, as in the thirties and forties, say, with the Pylon Poets and their brand of social and political commitment juxtaposed with The New Romantics, who wrote against the intellectualism of the political and social poetry of the time.
You’re so right. On the one hand these divisions—conceptualist poets and resistance poets, or academic poets in contrast to imagist poets, or the perfectionist neo-Augustan poets vs. the emotive meditative poets of the Renaissance, or the sensualist Romantic poets responding against the satiric neo-Augustan poets—are ever-repeating pushes and pulls in most all creative arts. Same time, I don’t know what to say about audience. I’m going to foul that question off because I can only control what I do, and even then I’m full of uncertainty and a sense of lack of control. Every time I finish a poem, I’m left saying to myself, muttering, dazed really, “Well, it’s a start." So I just try to focus on what it is I’m trying to write. To avoid thinking about audience, I call my poems, to myself at least, trifles. “I’m just working on a trifle,” I say to myself. And yet, too, I can say that in Shattering Air I was trifling with spots of time; in Wild Civility I was trifling with the form of a 9-line American sonnet; in The Book of Men and Women I was trifling with the crisis of the despair and joy of love; in Charming Gardeners I was trifling with epistolary poems to individuals I wanted to talk to; and in Republic Café I’m trifling with a book-length poem, a journal form, about the sanctity of forgetting.
I know how much the political has been part of your writer life. That is, from 2008–2012, according to Wikipedia, you were a regular contributor to The Politico's Arena, “a cross-party, cross-discipline daily conversation about politics and policy among current and former members of Congress, governors, mayors, political strategists and scholars.” You’ve also written about the relationship between poets and democracy in your essay, "This Land Is Our Land," a piece that appeared in Poetry in 2010. That piece, about the importance of citizen-poets participating in the civic life of our nation, created a spirited debate among poets. Among dissenters, Stephanie Burt wrote that your ideas about this are "bad for our poetry." Yet, as I suggest above, maybe here we are, with the elliptical and such receding and the more overtly political poem—and, as a result, the more overtly activist poet (Natalie Diaz, Patricia Smith, Ada Limon, Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey and on and on)—on the rise, the popular period style of the current moment? If so, the bigger question remains: can poetry matter?
Your characterization implies that my 2010 essay in Poetry was either before its time or a catalyst. Humility prevents me from weighing in with an answer. When I wrote that piece, the idea that poets would be engaged in the political arena in the United States was deeply out of favor, back in 2010 I mean (although writing organizations like Split This Rock were long committed to the political idiom in poetry). I think we should be more accurate when we speak of political poetry in the United States today. We are, by and large and with few exceptions, speaking of blue state political ideologies and anti-establishment political ideologies. That’s OK. I’m not suggesting anything should be or could be different. As a writer I consider myself a proud “enemy of the people,” a card-carrying member of the Resistance. I often feel it might be worth remembering that we are speaking of political poetry written under the protection of the First Amendment and the protection of the world’s largest military and the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.
There’s an argument to be made that what we call political poetry in the United States is a synonym for partisan poetry. And I’ve already spoken about my allergic reactions to propagandistic poetry. I suspect, already now, as this is being typed, poets in the United States are growing restless with the shiny object of political verse, same as a few years back some of us were uninterested in the shiny object of elliptical verse. And those elliptical poets had grown uninterested in anecdotal, post-confessionalist verse. And so it goes. Finally, it’s important that I say this: I think poets should write whatever they want, in a style and in the forms that best suit their interests. Some poets are predisposed to work in whatever period style is in the air. They want to try their hand at the new, shiny thing. All power to them. Other poets are predisposed to avoid the avant garde and to remain out of style always. Speaking for myself, I am interested in only one thing, too, to write poems that are studies of the human condition—for no other reason that I find that subject perilous and joyful. I don’t think I’m too overconfident, as well, when I say that this subject of the human condition is very likely also of interest to the other 7.6 billion human beings on the Earth.
Finally, I can’t help myself. Again, relying on Wikipedia, I see that you went to Boston University on a diving scholarship and competed in the U.S. Diving Championships against the likes of Greg Louganis and Bruce Kimball! Diving to poetry? Tell us about that. Is there something the discipline and self-awareness of diving taught you that you’ve brought to your life as a writer?
I’m glad you asked this. I wrote about this subject in The Education of a Young Poet, a memoir that was published last year. The paperback will be out in the fall. I was telling a story about writing letters every day in the summer of 1985 when I was training for nationals in Nashville. What I wrote in the book was, "When I inserted myself into the process of writing it was like I was a cat crawling into the sentences and paragraphs. A similar sensation was happening to me when I was diving, too. When I’d be underwater after a dive, I could feel the air in my lungs build pressure, just as at night in my rented room I could feel the words in me build pressure. Kicking underneath the water in the deep end of the pool after a dive and before I’d swim back up to the surface, I felt as if I were haunting a maze of night and dreams. Underwater is as close as I’ve been to feeling what the unconscious might be like with its awful instinct and silence. Underwater you have no age. You feel—just thrown from the sky at least—weightless. It’s like the thought, or the thought prior to, an utterance or an avowal, a surrender, and then deliverance. In the air, too, diving is a sport of continual adjustments. You practice your moves and flips and twists, and you sharpen your kinetic prowess and your acrobatic finesse. And yet bounding off the three meter diving board or leaping from the ten meter platform is like entering the foreign language of the air. You learn its accents, you figure out its currency, you develop the cadences of a native, but you are always a foreigner. Much as you develop routines and skills to master its idioms, you never succeed at feeling at home there, never feel like you do when you are standing back on the ground where you belong.
When you're a diver, you're only a tourist of the air. Then, after you've plunged into the water and held your breath underneath the surface, you’d swim back up and quickly climb out of the water for the safety of the ground and the hot pool deck. It’s an exotic joining of distances, like tracing a memory. Every dive I did, whether in practice or in competition, was a new beginning. Standing stoically on the diving board—before take-off, arms dropped at my side, and reviewing the moves of the dive in my brain—it was as if I were simultaneously filled with the knowledge of everything I had learned in practice and also completely ignorant of what the future of the dive would actually bring. Nothing so resembles the practice of adjustments, of risking and accepting failure, of pleading with yourself for redemption, like diving does as writing a poem."
Thank You for Coming, Peter! Thank You, Nicole, for Coming!
We listened to the radio the way a defeated people listen to the feet of an invading army
March into the city, and not far behind them,
The smooth-skinned nuns tell the passersby about sleeping with the enemy.
Accomplishment, St. Maria Goretti, saint for the day
For July 6, 2011, says, is only for the unrepentant.
In 1902, her neighbor grabbed her
From the steps of her house near Anzio and tried to rape her.
She said, rather than submit, she would prefer to die,
So he stabbed her with a knife.
The old prophets put their trust in the beginning of the world.
They were right to endure the unforeseen
Even when forgotten like a savior.
I am right, and not right, and grow old,
Ascetic as a Jew with a gray beard,
And I stare at the fibrillating sky.
Would that my name were legible as a cloud.
Ambulances burned like fires on the distant hillsides.
There was a swirl of children in the little park,
Carrying gift bags from the birthday party.
The birth mother was covering her son
With her arms like an old coat.
from Republic Café
Because the past travels distances —downstream and out of sight to where the water is dark and
easy and the sun bursts and the grass dies in late summer
And the small trees are no longer in blossom—
I find a place under the skies to disappear on the far edges of the horizon
Where a long train is crossing the ranchlands: a short horn-blast followed by three longer blasts.
That’s the way it should be, you say, sitting straight up on the bed, narrow as a statue.
I say, what I remember is, I’ve spent my life knowing nothing.
Your past glares like sunlight on stone houses.
It’s a winter past and freezes in the dark,
A past that scatters in bright windows.
Your past dreams of opened shop windows.
To remember love, we must wince against the weak sun.
You unbutton your dress
And whisper, one by one, words that slip into the landscape,
Newborn, courtyard, husband, promise.
Tomorrow I must write: In the palm of every man’s hand is the blood of war.
Tomorrow I must write: The soul is emptied like a clear day just after rain when the wind has
died and the afternoon train never arrives.
To be shorn of the past, I say, is to believe that each previous love was a mistake.
Everyone forgets—I say, leaning forward in a chair
While you are standing near the window—
It’s like coming to the end of a triumph but seeing it as failure.
We do a lot of things out of fear, she says, just to survive.
She turns from the window.
Did you know, he says, in the Book of Life, when you find a name with a dot, the dot means
there’s a survivor.
You see very few dots.
Like little boats ready to head home, the crows are gathering outside the room under the old
Do you think, she says, w hen we die they’ll call for us?
What did 9/11 mean to you? he asks.
The beginning of the new war, she answers,
And the beginning of indifference.
She was facing a mirror,
Have you rejoiced? he asks.
She doesn’t answer at first, but her eyes, through the mirror,
Look in his direction.
In the room are spirits pressing through the door
Like a bell somewhere down the road they can almost hear.
But the bell is too silent,
Even the closer it gets to them.
At last she answers, her eyes inside the smudged bevels of glass,
Why do we always go over what we should have done, and not what we did?
He says, it’s impossible to know who will see our disguises as something other than pieces of
broken stone destroyed years ago.
She is taking off her shoes, letting her hair down,
Looking absently at the floor.
When you see bird tracks on the shoreline, he tells her, they are like the handwriting of God.
The tracks in the sand cannot be forgotten, he says, and cannot be remembered.
But the birds forget the tracks, she says.
It’s best to leave behind something to remind you where you have been, she says.
He says, and what should we leave behind?
He says, the dead do not abandon cemeteries even if the living do.
She says, a photograph.
She says, we must always be in training to die.
He says, isn’t our future like a drawer in a cabinet?
When the drawer opens, there will be no reason to lie to each other.
When the drawer closes,
We will at last open our souls to terror
Like passing the corridors and alcoves and foyers
To a new room.
They are sitting on the bed, folding into each other like a piece of paper tucked in between a door
and a doorpost.
Cobbles of clouds lash against the city,
But there was no rain yet.
Across the street, scrawled placards from the parade read—
DON ’T GLORIFY MURDERS OF 3,000
PLANES CRASH GOD LAUGHS
9-11— GIFT FROM GOD
The clouds arrange to meet in the middle of the sky like lovers,
And then part, so that forgetting about clouds becomes a new pattern against the dead.
Now the clouds are a parade of flickering light above the city
Like portraits of the missing.
photo by Marion Ettlinger