Archive for the ‘Conversations’ Category

A Conversation with Laura Walker

This week, THERMOS is running a feature of Laura Walker’s poetry, assembled by Cassie Donish. Today’s installment is an interview, conducted by e-mail in the summer of 2014. Please check back tomorrow for some new poetry.

Cassie Donish: When I met you last November at the Poetry Exchange Project in New Orleans, I had the privilege of hearing you read from some of the same new works that we’re featuring here at THERMOS, including genesis. Could you tell us about genesis?

Laura Walker: I’ve always been haunted by the pulling cadences of the King James Version of the Bible. I think it’s partly because the rhythms are incredibly mesmerizing, and partly because I grew up in the Bible Belt with a proselytizing atheist for a father, which created its own host of contradictions and yearnings and hauntings. I felt simultaneously included and excluded by that language. I think genesis was my attempt to go back in time and explore the somewhat forbidden rhythms that have shaped me deeply.

CD: What are you currently writing? How does your current writing depart from your past projects?

LW: I’m in the last stages (I think) of a manuscript I’ve been working on for about a year. It’s a series of prose blocks circling around ideas of story and its manifestations, weaving characters, fairy tales, family stories, and memories, both “real” and created. Sometimes I say it’s as close to writing a novel as I’ll ever get, which is not very close. But there was something that felt “novelistic” for me as I wrote it, for example the ways in which I needed to erect a structure and simultaneously keep it aloft while turning my attention elsewhere—like putting up a circus tent and drawing something obscure and difficult on the floor at the same time. Destined for failure but exhilarating too.

In my mind it departs quite a bit from what I’ve written previously. And that’s part of what I’ve enjoyed about it—the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing, at all—the unfamiliarity. I’ve always been most comfortable with partial narrative, pieces of stories, multiple and shifting and overlapping—I have a huge distrust of anything that presents itself as complete, of beginnings and endings, of story arcs. So in this project I’ve had to write alongside my discomfort. Even though the stories here are still fragmented and incomplete, they’re central and substantive in a way that’s new for me. I’ve had to fight, hard, against my natural inclination to take things out, to subtract. Narrative here is, in some way, the point—not a hazy aura or shifting backdrop or ghostly presence—even though it’s still all those things, too, at least I hope. Anyway, it’s made me really uncomfortable, in a great way. I can feel myself having to reach toward new ways of holding things.

I was haunted by a lot of things while I wrote it. By my own experience of memory, especially of the way my memory now has gaps and holes since a concussion a few years ago, with new gaps being created all the time— and what that means for identity, “truth,” the communal, for creating something. By listening to my grandmother’s memories turn more and more gauzy over a period of years. By my visceral memories of fairy tales, what I took in and made my own, long ago, what I recreated, and perhaps why. By the idea of story as a character, with her own needs and trajectory. By my reading about recovered memories. By the idea of our body as a story we tell ourselves, and what that means for boundaries, transgression, injury. By narrative shape built through layer or repetition or eddies of water, vs. movement over ground and space—a finger rubbing the same circle repeatedly, eroding the surface.

CD: You mention several things that one might think of as characteristic of your writing: fragmentation, the experience of memory, “distrust of anything that presents itself as complete.” What is the role of absence or silence in your work? Is it a character too?

LW: I love the idea of absence as a character. For years I’ve been enamored with Barbara Guest’s description of a poem’s “little ghost.” I’m mesmerized by what hovers— glimpsed but never seen, unarticulated, unknown, unknowable—but still present. Palpable absence. And perhaps, related to that, it can be interesting to think of a poem as landscape or structure, as a place something else might briefly touch down in, or move through. Not to imply that place or landscape (or poem) is passive, awaiting some Other—but more an idea of movement, invitation, shifting inhabitances. And how to create a poem as a place or a stance—and an invitation to what can’t be written and what can’t be sustained.

CD: Reading your most recent book, Follow-Haswed (Apogee Press, 2012), I felt as though I were on a midnight tour through a mysterious landscape, one that indicated or implicated our world through a kind of echolocation. The book, which could be described as a project of erasure and collage, struck me as a different type of translation—in which the OED volume you used was not an original text, but a translator. What do I mean? How did you come to use this particular OED volume, the sixth? Did you work with a hard copy of the volume? What was it like writing this book?

LW: I really love that: an idea of poetry “that indicated or implicated our world through a kind of echolocation.” If you got that sense from Follow-Haswed, I’m thrilled.

Follow-Haswed began when I bought a single volume of the OED off of eBay ten or so years ago, because it was only 15 dollars, while the whole set was well beyond my means, and my space. It was volume VI, “Follow-Haswed.” I think there were three or four volumes to choose from, and I imagine the word “follow” lured me, as well as not having any idea what “haswed” meant.

I fell in love with it when it arrived. I just loved having it there on the shelf, loved the look of the print, loved the layout, loved the heft: loved it. And had no idea what to do with any of that love, creatively speaking. So I just kept packing and unpacking it as I moved.

And then one day, years later, I picked it up and started to read it. And I became enamored with the weird ways the various entries seemed to speak to one another, in part by virtue of the source texts for the illustrative quotations, and in part rather mysteriously.
Everywhere I looked there seemed to be references to water, and soldiers, and girlhood, and war – in follow and gogibber and gain…. that is, in places I would not expect these themes to crowd in.

And so I became really interested in what a single word might carry, in the word as a world, in a word as a maze. And in the idea that just in the place where we try to pin a word down—in a dictionary—meaning explodes, implodes. I was fascinated by the fact that the smallest units of language are also terribly full, terribly laden. And that words are imprinted, just as they imprint us. Because the themes I was finding everywhere were also, of course, my own obsessions: girlhood, soldiers, water, war. So reading the dictionary started to resemble reading any book—thinking about what we receive and what we project, and the complicated relationship of reader and text. There was something slippery at the core— which I think your text/translator question is getting at—and I’m always mesmerized by slipperiness.

Writing the book was a process of reading an entry, copying out pieces and phrases that struck me as compelling, and then going back to those long lists and collaging. It was hugely enjoyable. It was also something I could do in the small, broken bits of writing time I had as a mother of two young kids. Everything in a poem is taken verbatim from a particular entry, and line breaks reflect where I jumped within the entry—so with all that given, I focused on juxtaposition, on break and link, on rhythm and music, and on echo and repetition—and on, hopefully, having something arise off the page a bit.

CD: What poetic traditions do you see your work as part of, or as emerging from?

LW: I feel very lucky that I went to SF State for my MFA. I went there for all the wrong reasons but it was there that I started to study the work of women who were publishing innovative work in the 1980’s and beyond, many in San Francisco, and many of them brought together in the pages of the journal HOW(ever) in the 80’s. Kathleen Fraser co-founded and edited HOW(ever) and her work became incredibly important to me. I feel lucky that I went to school in a place with such a rich history of women’s experimental writing, where I could stumble across books published by Kelsey Street Press, or take classes from Myung Mi Kim, Norma Cole, and Susan Gevirtz, or hear Cole Swensen or Brenda Hillman or Barbara Guest read frequently. Through these poets I became immersed in ideas of broken or interrupted lyric, in the role of silence or space on the page, in poetic forms shaped in part by women’s lived experiences—motherhood, for example—and in poetry as inquiry or investigation.

CD: What are some advantages and obstacles, in your opinion, of being associated with a community or tradition in poetry that defines itself in part by gender, specifically the identity of ‘woman’? Do you have any reflections you could share with us on the issue of gender and poetics?

LW: I doubt I have anything new to say on that huge and many-branched topic. I identify as a woman and I write poetry, and obviously my ways of seeing and experiencing the world, as a woman, necessarily come to play in what I write, and how I read, and what I’m drawn to read, and how I read the world, and how the world reads me, etc., etc. And this has many implications for what work I end up having access to, and who has access to my work, and how such work is contextualized (VIDA is doing amazing work around these issues.) I feel a deep debt to people like Kathleen Fraser and Patricia Dienstfrey and countless others for making a space for poetry by women when there was very little space for it; and of course that space is still contested and fraught in many ways (see VIDA again), though better, I think, than what it’s been in the past; and of course again gender is just one of the lenses through which we can examine what work is celebrated/ read/ published, and by whom, and how those things are decided. Access and prestige and visibility are huge issues.

At the same time, of course, identity read in a simplistic way is, well, simplistic. It would be ridiculous to read my poetry to find out “what a woman thinks,” or “what women’s poetry is like”—in that weird but weirdly persistent way of reading poetry outside a dominant mode— as if I or anyone can somehow stand in for a group we’re a part of. I guess I believe in constellation rather than essentialism.

So I guess I see such associations as wonderful when they open things up and not so great when they shut things down. “Open things up” by providing space and access and opportunities to share work and explore poetry that moves away from assumptions of the mainstream. “Shut things down” by essentializing one aspect of someone’s very complex identity and making sweeping generalizations based upon it. But that’s more about how these groupings or associations are interpreted or misinterpreted, perhaps?— than about being a part of them.

CD: What’s exciting to you about contemporary poetry? What are you reading right now?

LW: I remember Stacy Doris talking once about how she entered a new book of poetry— from the middle, skipping around as she liked, and hardly ever from beginning to end. And I was so struck by what I took as the freedom of that, the boldness of the recognition that we meet a book where we are, from where we are, because of where we are—her embracing of the subjectivity of reading, as I understood it.

It’s in part why I always find myself on the opposite side of arguments about there being “too much poetry”, about poetry being published “too soon,” whatever that means—that there’s too much chaff vs. wheat, I guess. Bring on the chaff, I say—maybe I like chaff. Maybe chaff is exactly what I need to read at this moment; one woman’s chaff is another woman’s, etc. Which is quite different from saying I like everything, but rather I’m grateful for the proliferation. I’m excited that we can publish each other in affordable ways, that there are so many micro-communities around reading series and blogs and online magazines and installations, as well as books-in-paper. That there’s room. I think there are still plenty of thorny issues around resources and access and prestige, as I said above, but I’m excited for the ways in which we can encounter work outside the land of contests and book publication.

It also means, though, that there’s always more work I want to read than I have time to read. And I read slowly. Recently I’ve been reading Tiff Dressen, Todd Melicker, Martin Camps, Teresa Miller, Joseph Lease, giovanni singleton, John Sakkis, Jenn McCreary, Sarah Vap. And I have a huge stack of books and bookmarked websites waiting for me.

CD: Aside from poetry, what influences your work and your thinking?

LW: Ecosystems, both wild and not—forests, fields, mountains, gardens—all that interplay, the many complex relationships occurring—I find it endlessly thought-provoking, or feeling-provoking, or something. Also, weather—both my direct experience of it and the systems developed to describe it—cloud formations, humidity and temperature, sun and fog and radar maps. Maps in general are amazing to me, both conceptually and physically. Also, I recently wrote a series of poems drawing from the picture books I read repeatedly to my children when they were young and I was extremely sleep-deprived—that combination of sleep deprivation and repetition created an almost mystical space in which I entered those books, lived in those books, in ways I can’t return to, but remember vividly.

CD: Would you mind sharing which children’s books you’re referring to? 

LW: Oh, many more than I can list here—I think I drew from more than fifty books—everything from books from my parents’ generation (Mike Mulligan, Rapunzel, Madeline, The Secret Garden) to books I grew up with (The Lorax, Are you My Mother, Horton Hears a Who, Harold and the Purple Crayon) to books I only discovered alongside my kids (When the Sky is Like Lace, Storm Boy, Mole Music, The Visitor). They all merged in this wonderful hazy space created by my extreme sleep-deprivation and the ritual of reading them aloud again and again.

CD: What’s the biggest challenge for you when it comes to writing? What comes easily?

LW: I love playing with a text. Putting words on paper or a screen, to create something to play with, is not so easy for me. But once I have material, I can break it apart and reform it and recirculate it and try it a hundred different ways, and stay happy. So I’d say I’m happiest when I’m (endlessly) revising something, or re-inventing something, and least happy when I’ve just finished a project and am casting around for something new—something that opens a door to the elusive thing-I-can’t-name which will inspire more messing around.

I’m also terrible at writing “about” something. For example, when my kids were small, people were always suggesting lovely or challenging or poignant things they were doing or I was experiencing that I should write about, that would “make a good poem.” I can’t do that. A lot of times I’ve wished I could, and I try occasionally, but it’s just a mess. I’m sure my daily life enters my writing in other ways, but not directly, or in ways I can easily point to.

CD: What’s something you can easily point to where you are right now?

LW: Just one thing? I can never do just one thing. Quinnehutukqut by Joshua Harmon. A can of Gold Brick Pale Ale. A picture of the sun by one of my sons. And through the window, my new bee hives, swirling.


The New Census: A Conversation With Lauren Haldeman

This week and next, we’ll feature The New Census: an Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, a lovely new book edited by Lauren Shapiro & Kevin A. Gonzalez, and published by Rescue Press. You can purchase the anthology here. Today’s conversation is with two-time THERMOS contributor Lauren Haldeman, who did artwork for the anthology.

Phrases about The New Census from an Online Chat (Continued):
…in their introduction, the editors hope that The New Census will be “tucked under the arm while riding the train or spotted askance on the floor of a dorm room…bent in the library, lent to a new friend, and scarred by the marks of a reader’s pen”…saying, it’s more fun than your boring high school English teacher…does a center of argument nonetheless emerge…(to be continued)…

1. Your illustrated author photos in The New Census are SPECTACULAR. Could you tell us about your process for making them?

Alright, but get ready to be really BORED. It ended up being a much lengthier process than I thought it would be. I started by creating a grid-system within a 5-inch by 7-inch framework in order to keep everything uniform. And then I cropped all of the bio photographs to that size and merged them into the framework. Using those as references, I would draw each of the photographs by hand, in pencil. (I even bought a special new sketch pad for the project). So I ended up with these pages and pages of portraits. This took the longest time. Then, I scanned them all into a computer. Imported to Photoshop and employed some manipulation there, Curves and Levels mostly. Then I brought the images into Illustrator and had a very exact Live Trace set up for the drawings to turn them into vector. After this was done, I sent them over to Sevy and he basically made them all 3000% better.

2. Whose picture was hardest to draw?

By far, the hardest pictures to draw were the pictures of the people I actually know, in real life. Knowing someone really changes the way you represent them in your mind and skews the way you THINK they should look. You can’t actually see how they REALLY look anymore. Does that make sense? So that makes the details so much more intricate and frustrating in a two-dimensional representation. I would spend hours on a 2 centimeter long line, just to define the edge of a smile to get it to be how I thought it should be. Because it had to be right. Because, second point: drawing people who you know comes with the enormous fear that they will not like the drawing. That they will be mad. That they will stop being friends with you because of the drawing! It is a ridiculous fear; I mean, can you imagine saying to someone “Yeah, we used to be friends. But then one day she drew a picture of me, and it was not up to my standards. Now we are not friends”? But it is a real fear.

Other than that, teeth. Teeth are the hardest things to draw ever.

3. Whose was most fun?

My favorite portrait was Yona Harvey. I just loved drawing her face, because of the line of her profile. No offense to everyone else, but her drawing just ended up being my favorite. There. I said it.

4. Whose facial hair is your favorite?

Any facial hair. All the facial hair. Bring me some facial hair, friends and I will draw it.

5. Did you read or avoid reading the contributors’ poems while working on the drawings? In general, are there poets/poems you like to read when you are working on visual art?

I didn’t read any specific poetry while I was drawing. I set up a space in my basement with a table and a lamp. I would put on Netflix basically to have it playing in the background. The portraits were almost exclusively drawn to Doctor Who episodes. The 10th doctor only. I could probably tell you which episode for which portrait. It was a long winter.

Later, I read everyone’s poems, after the drawings were done. It was really amazing how much CLOSER I felt to each poet. It was like “Oh I know you! You had those great earlobes!” (I do love drawing earlobes). It made the reading much more personal. So now I declare that every reader should have to draw the writer before opening the book. Law.

6. I’m trying to pass a law saying that all author photos have to be illustrations. How do you think that would change how people read and write poetry?

Dangerous stuff there, Zach. Within one generation, all the children of the world would sleep under sheets printed with poets’ faces. They would wear poet-face-themed underwear. I can’t tell if this is a good or bad thing, really, but that’s what would happen.

The New Census: A Conversation With Sevy Perez

This week and next, we’ll feature The New Census: an Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, a lovely new book edited by Lauren Shapiro & Kevin A. Gonzalez, and published by Rescue Press. You can purchase the anthology here. Today’s discussion is with Sevy Perez, book designer for Rescue.

Phrases about The New Census from an Online Chat (Continued):
…aesthetic statements here are confined to the action of the poems, the prevalence of modes which haven’t really yet been theorized…what would an 18-year-old reader find in this anthology, especially if they want to write…(to be continued)…

1. Tell us about the design process for The New Census. I imagine some of its elements (multiple authors, illustrations, the desire to be substantial without being overwhelming) presented distinct challenges.

Well I’ve never before designed an anthology. In the beginning, I pulled a few from bookshelves to get an idea — whenever you’re creating something there’s a neurosis to know what everyone else is doing, but what I saw was endemically boring and stuffy. We know we wanted to do something traditional in a modern way, something sincere in a fun way. Rescue specializes, in my opinion, in good, weird stuff. It’s always a task to make substantiation digestible, but there are a lot of elements in this collection that work to ease the pain: whether it’s the illustrations, polls, use of black or the typeset itself — as a designer, there are certain typefaces that just yawn academia, so we don’t even use those — so it was built from the ground-up to be just the right amount of weird without being unrecognizable. It’s black because black is always in. It’s natural paper because it’s easiest to read.

I’ve set hundreds or writers’ work, and this anthology has maybe the top ten most difficult pieces I’ve ever encountered. This is good, though. Most poets, whether they know it or not, are constrained by the tab or enter keys, but there’s a lot of variety in these pages. Some poems I just turned sideways to fit true. Others had to break some rules. The most distinct challenge in any book is making the typeset true to form: sometimes your pages aren’t the same proportions as an 8.5 x 11 or you have more space between lines, &c. And since poetry is what it is, I can’t have a reader mistaking a typesetting anomaly into some type of authorial intent. Yes, we have graphs and illustrations and things, but just being honest to the work is always the most challenging and rewarding.

2. One of the first things people will notice about the book are its “census” graphics, which represent contributors’ responses to questions including “what is your shoe size” and “do you eat meat.” Which of these graphics is your favorite? Which one do you think reveals the most about contemporary poetry?

I think the question what genre do you read the most is my favorite. It’s relevant and humbling, with answers like email, job advertisements, the genre of the dark-yet-fancily-dressed.

I don’t know a thing about contemporary poetry, but I think there’s something representative in what contemporary poets are reading. I wrote one poem once. That’s the extent of my poetry knowledge.

3. You’ve designed other books for Rescue. How would you describe the overall aesthetic of your work? What are some publishers/designers you look to for inspiration?

I’m pretty formulaic. I think rules are what separate design from art. Most of my work for Rescue is consistent without being predictable, which I think is always the name of the game. You’ll always see the logos in the same spots, same general layout, but with something attuned to the work. You always read the thing first, and you never make your part in the final product obvious. E.g., for one of our most recent books, Jonathan Blum’s Last Word, I created this canvas painting from crushed witch hazel pigment because witch hazel is a recurring symbol in the work and Blum’s surname etymology is the German blume, or flower. So you never want to make it so obvious because you don’t want to risk misleading the reader by prepping them to encounter a certain symbol or image. I think the best covers are bespoke, yet open to interpretation, yet easily identifiable as part of an overall brand. So it’s always a triangulation.

As far as other designers or publishers, I think Knopf and Wave are putting out interesting visual stuff. Knopf tailors its brand to each work, and I’m just kind of obsessed with the new Wave book aesthetic in an oogly, far-away way. Most small presses have this grungyish, DIY design style I don’t buy. Big press design tends to be hit or miss, though lately there have been more hits, partly because the whole e-reader revolution has done us all a favor in a way. It sounds silly but we have to think about what books are doing. Our anthology is a product, yes. But it’s a product meant to, depending on who you ask, either engage or disengage you into/from the so-called real world where most products move you along your basic like existence instead of interrupting it. Culturally books are the new vinyls: they’re extremely thoughtful things that lend themselves to sentimentality. It’s always nice to digitally detox with the printed word here and there. There aren’t a whole lot of commodified, functional art objects you can own nowadays. For a birthday once, a friend surprised me with a totally mint, original 1988 Paris Review (because there’s a David Foster Wallace story in it I love) that I totally cherish. You can go read that online — here, I’ll even link you. But it’s just not the same. I doubt anyone’s going to run off the story on their Epson and tuck it away to pass on to their kids or whatever. Sorry about ranting there.

4. Unlimited budget. Unlimited hours. You are designing a single-copy special edition of The New Census. What would you do?

You know, I’m sitting here up in Prairie Lights mulling over what this would look like. The truth is, disappointingly maybe, that I wouldn’t change a thing. Not because I think what we did already is perfect or whatever, but — especially with designing books — the designer should be invisible. My job is to pull you in and then make you forget I ever pulled you in in the first place. I don’t do ornamation. And from a brand perspective, you don’t want one thing in a line of things to be a mutation.

On the other hand, though, I do wonder what a solid gold book would look like.

The New Census: A Conversation With Lauren Shapiro & Kevin A. Gonzalez

This week and next, we’ll feature The New Census: an Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, a lovely new book edited by Lauren Shapiro & Kevin A. Gonzalez, and published by Rescue Press. You can purchase the anthology here. By way of introduction to the feature:

Phrases about The New Census from an Online Chat:
…various aesthetics, preoccupations, and traditions, a body of American poets…a little like saying hi at a house party… “can we trade pants?”…“can I stir your drink with my hand?”…turn up your own volume…Sarah Manguso’s “Hell,” Eduardo Corral’s “Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome,” John Beer’s “Wasteland,” Adrian Matejka’s “English B”…unlike the history- and movement-conscious recent revision of Norton’s Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (ed. Paul Hoover)…(to be continued)…

1. How’d this anthology start? Why do we need another anthology of poetry?

The anthology started because the editors of Rescue Press were talking to us one day about the need for a new anthology of contemporary American poetry, or we were talking to them—we can’t remember. Small presses are popping up all over the country, and it gets harder and harder to keep up with all that’s out there. One can say this is the democratic blessing and the curse of the internet—so much material to filter—but that’s not really it. It has more to do with the empowerment of writers who don’t see the kind of writing they admire getting published by the more well-known publishing companies. These writers are starting their own presses and publishing some really great collections that don’t usually receive the circulation they deserve. One of the goals of this anthology was to give voice to these writers.

That said, we’re both teachers, and we’re tired of putting together course packets all the time. We wanted to make a collection that could be used in the classroom to give students a sense of the vibrant work that is being published now. One could say that’s what many editors of anthologies are trying to do, but when those anthologies were published ten or fifteen years ago, and they consisted mostly of writers who were already well-established in the poetry world at the time, well, we thought it was time for a new one.

2. Tell us a little about your process for selecting poets/poems to include. What were some of the hardest calls to make?

We started by compiling a long list, with the help of the Rescue Press editors, and input from several trusted poet-friends. At this stage, before we got in touch with any of the writers, we bought and read hundreds of books so that we could familiarize ourselves with new writing as well. This process—of reading individual collections and building and narrowing this list—took between one and two years. It should be noted, also, that Caryl Pagel, the editor of Rescue Press, was going through this process with us. We’d have occasional meetings—usually at the Crystal Corner Bar in Madison—in which we’d discuss and trade books.

We absolutely did not want to get stuck selecting poets who merely fit our own taste and winding up with the Kevin and Lauren (and Caryl) show. We also didn’t want to include writers who had too many books out—the goal was to include those who we felt had more to show. Then we went through the list and tried to choose writers whose work we felt strongly about and who would complement each other in an anthology. Once we had compiled the list, we asked each writer to send 15 representative pages of poems they would be happy to include in the anthology. We often made suggestions as to which poems from their books we would like to see included, but we wanted to give each poet some control and freedom as to their selection (as well as the opportunity to show us new, unpublished work that we would not have been familiar with), and we went from there. There were times when we (Kevin, Lauren, Caryl) disagreed, and we tried to let everyone have as much of a say as possible, but, of course, we’re very happy with the final selection.

3. Your introduction avoids explicit claims about poetics and literary history. What implicit claims do you think The New Census makes about contemporary poetry? Do you hope this anthology in any way offers a counter-history or corrective view?

We did feel that there was a need for a new anthology, but we didn’t put the book together as a specific reaction to anything that’s already out there. We believe this anthology is just completely different from what’s currently available. The anthology that ours most closely approximates, in our opinion, is American Poetry: The Next Generation, which was published about 15 years ago by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and which limits its selection to poets who were under 40 years of age at the time of its publication. Of course, the literary landscape has changed significantly since then, and many of those poets, who may have been considered ‘emerging’ at the time, are now well-established. Likewise, the majority of the poets in our anthology hadn’t even published their first book at that time. That said, we didn’t believe we needed to justify the collection in any way except to state what our goals were, which were simply to create a book that would collect writers whose work we’re excited about, and who we feel will be bringing more to the poetry world in the future. We kept stylistic diversity in mind, and we wanted, also, to showcase some poets published by small independent presses that we feel are doing terrific work alongside those published by larger independent publishers and university presses. But it’s not an “avant-garde” anthology, or an anthology of poets published by small independent presses, or an anthology of women writers, or any such limiting approach. It’s simply a collection of new American poets.

4. I don’t have time to read your anthology. Which three poems from it might convince me I’m wrong?

This is a very difficult question. It was hard enough to limit the collection as much as we had to, so to choose three representative poems would be madness. That said, we’ll each pick three poems that help show the range of the anthology: Tyehimba Jess, “Blind Tom, One Body, Two Graves Brooklyn/Georgia,” Suzanne Buffam, “The New Experience,” Nick Lantz, “Of the Parrat and Other Birds That Can Speak,” Sabrina Orah Mark, “The Very Nervous Family,” Darcie Dennigan, “The Job Interview”, and Adrian Matejka, “Battle Royale”

5. Anthologies are easy to criticize. What do you think snarky bloggers and well-laureled professors will complain about after reading The New Census?

One of the unfortunate outcomes of anthologies is that they create the insider-outsider mentality. In other words, readers (most of whom will also be writers) will complain about who’s in and who’s out. This, we think, will be the nature of most complaints. In other words, how the anthology might have been different if X person had been the editor. This kind of criticism is inevitable. Our response would be, make your own anthology. We’d love to read it! Enjoy the permissions process!

6. If you had to put a photograph of a currently dead poet on the cover of the anthology, which currently dead poet would you choose? What would you like the photograph to show this dead poet doing?

It would have to be something dramatic and exciting but also self-aware. Lauren’s pick would be the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the avant-garde poet and artist working around the turn of the century–one of the photos in which she’s all contorted, wearing a birdcage and kicking one leg into the air. Kevin finds the phrasing of your question fascinating. What do you mean by currently dead? I hesitate to mention a dead poet, as the question seems to imply that he or she may, at some point in time, cease to be dead, and I don’t want an undead poet coming after me.

A Conversation with Cassie Donish

With this conversation, conducted over the past few days, we conclude our feature of Cassie Donish’s poetry, and welcome her to the editorial staff of THERMOS. Whatever that means! — AS

First of all, welcome to THERMOS. We’re really excited to have you (finally, I suppose) join us as an editor. What have been some of your thoughts about THERMOS in the past, and what’s interesting to you about selecting and presenting poetry?

I’ve appreciated THERMOS immensely since its inception in 2008. I brought printed volumes with me to Ecuador, Spain, and Mexico while traveling to those places in 2010 and 2011, and I was often able to step inside the poems, to lose myself and forget where I was for moments, and to come out again with my head tilted in a slightly different direction. What does this say? Does it say the poetry of THERMOS has been working for me? And if so, why is that? Is it because the poems are intellectually and technically exciting without being oriented above all towards Conceptualism? Is it because I can always feel the presence of a living, breathing, animal body behind the words? Is it because of the poems that are wryly funny while also being serious and unironic? Is it because I’ve known you and Melissa and Jay and Zach for ten plus years, because you’ve been part of the community through/with which I’ve developed my aesthetic sensibilities over that time?

I like the idea that because “there is no canon,” selecting and presenting poems is not about what’s objectively good — unless we’re talking about the feminist objectivity advocated for by scholar Donna Haraway, which let’s say we are, so actually it is about what’s objectively good, and our objectivity is not a view from nowhere, it’s a view from somewhere, from particularly situated bodies in time and space. Speaking of objects, I desire poems the way I desire things, a good mug to drink hot coffee from, say, or something I can wear, like a sturdy pair of boots for walking in the snow – I’m currently in the process of moving into an apartment in Eugene and it’s been snowing here, which is probably why I’m desiring these particular things. But also, I think I desire to be objectified by a poem, to be rendered by it. I want to forget I’m reading a poem, to instead feel like a pair of boots, or a self.

I recently read Graham Foust’s long poem “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and one of the many lines I love is: “The poem is the continuation of poetry by other means.” Whatever this means, I trust the opposite is also true.

What’s changed in your poetry during the few years separating “Las Escaleras, Oaxaca” from these new poems? Also, since you often write in sequence, would you mind talking some about your approach to that form?

I’ll start with the second part of your question. I think maybe sequences suit my temperament. If you’ve ever walked around with me all day, or for a week, which you have, you know I like it when conversations have many threads, and the threads can be interrupted by events (like swimming in a river, or buying ice cream) but then returned to suddenly in a single breath, without syntactic regard for the hours or days that have passed; for instance, resuming a prior conversation with gestures like “But what about…?” or “And anyway…” Maybe poets are like this in general, maybe people are? I think the sequence is a form that suits this mental state; it turns out that a single breath can be hours or weeks or years long. Who wants finality and complete thoughts? I love coffee, but my coffee often gets cold over and over, and I have to warm it up again. It becomes almost a game: how many times can I genuinely forget it’s sitting there, this thing I do want? Maybe I don’t like for the cup of coffee to end.

There’s something about living in foreign places, perhaps, that lends itself to writing sequences. I think I started writing sequences when I left the U.S. in 2004 to spend a year in Prague. Over the next few years I read C.D. Wright, Anne Carson, Barbara Cully, Carolyn Forché, Donna Stonecipher. Place figures prominently into the writings of all these women — and actually, both Stonecipher and Cully wrote in and about Prague. All these women also wrote sequences I loved. I think when you’re living outside your own country, and when much of what you write is epistolary, it seems that longer, fragmented pieces take shape, because there’s so much context to build, so much that is unfamiliar to your imagined, distant reader or correspondent, which is really you, in a way, the you that wants to hear about unfamiliar things. So the sequence written while traveling (and it doesn’t have to be abroad, of course, but really any kind of being in transit for extended periods, which could just be a metaphor for being a person who is not asleep) ends up being a long conversation you’re having with yourself, where you’re telling yourself what you see and making connections in an environment that’s ongoing, in a landscape that’s speaking back to you, because it’s listening, because it contains an endless amount of information you’ll never understand. 

I wrote Las Escaleras in Oaxaca in 2011. At the time, I was getting ready to start a master’s program in human geography. I was filled with the landscape and with geographic questions. Some people say that poetry shouldn’t be about explaining ideas, and while I don’t necessarily agree, I think what those people are arguing against might be modes of explication that are poetically ineffectual. I’m pretty sure that the presence or absence of “ideas” or “politics” doesn’t determine a poem’s quality as a poem, but that poems can certainly suffer for all kinds of reasons. But poems are of course captivating and necessary for all kinds of reasons as well.

Las Escaleras seems to come from a busy mind, a mind troubled with questions and arguments. I was trying to tell several stories, to translate them. In a way, I was exploring several research topics that I hadn’t fully articulated (to myself), ones that were keeping me awake at night, about the relationships between humans and our environments, about being an American in Mexico, about identity, performativity, and being an explicitly conscious thing. Also, about consciousness itself as performed.

Last spring, I finished my master’s degree in human geography at the University of Oregon. After sort of a break from writing poems, during which I was focused on a qualitative research project dealing with art and the gentrification of urban neighborhoods, I think I’ve come back to poetry with less ideological franticness. But maybe that’s not true. I’ve been swinging back and forth between the social sciences and the humanities for a long time. In my current oscillation, I feel a kind of intellectual investment in faith in aesthetics. A faith in that faith. This has implications for the kinds of poems I will write, and the kinds of breaths I will take.

I’m interested by the ways in which pursuits outside of poetry do and don’t intersect with poetic approaches. In New Orleans, I heard you talk with Robert Fernandez about theories of social space, and some other topics that were beyond my reach, related to your coursework in Human Geography. Here, you say that the Master’s program you recently completed gave you a two-year break from writing poems — but I wonder if you’ve tried to imagine ways in which the two pursuits might interact with one another. Specifically in terms of poetry, and specifically in terms of you, does that seem possible?

First I’ll say that a break from poems was really not a break from poetry, but certainly a break from finishing anything that looks like a traditional poem.

I’ve been calling myself an interdisciplinary thinker for a while, which means something pretty simple: that the categories outlining the basic questions and interests I want to spend time with don’t situate me easily in a particular discipline within the academy. Luckily, I’m far from alone in that regard. And there’s a good reason for that, which is that the disciplines in their current iteration are relatively new, historically speaking – less than two hundred years really (and that’s being generous), which is short in terms of the history of knowledges. And for some disciplines, the timeline is much shorter.

Pursuits outside poetry have always affected my poetic approaches. There are inspiring, incredible things to read that really transcend disciplinary divides, such as Henri Lefebvre’s lyrical writing on everyday life in cities and the gorgeous, large-scale metaphors (“theories”/“models”) he comes up with; Donna Haraway’s wild and imaginative critical pieces on feminism, primates, science, and cyborgs, among other subjects, which even in the 80s were probably ahead of our time; Bruno Latour’s brilliant, witty, and somehow warm and inviting analyses of the processes through which scientific facts and objects are produced, and his insistence that objects/things have a kind of agency we’re not good at articulating; and dare I even mention, like, Foucault? At times I’ve actually preferred to read such writers for poetic inspiration over “poetry.” But at my gut I’m looking for the same thing. Call it truth or beauty if you will, call it being shocked into presence by language. Call it disorientation that offers much more than it could ever take away.

I’m not sure I’m answering your question.

But I’ll also say I was very blessed to spend several months talking with artists, performers, musicians, and activists for my thesis project – and there were lots of wonderful opportunities for conversations about intersections between the various arts and social and spatial justice work. Those experiences were invaluable to me as a person and a poet.

Lastly, I’ll acknowledge that it’s probably easy for ideas, experiences, and conversations to mingle, always – but to practice a particular craft within a particular set of expectations or boundaries is different. So if you’re practicing writing songs, or writing academic articles, or writing stories, or letter, or poems, you’re going to be using different sets of aesthetic knowledges and different standards. If there’s a relationship between writing an academic article and writing a poem, I’m not sure what it is, besides that a creative attention to language and syntax will hopefully make both more interesting. There are probably other interesting things that could be discussed, like the aesthetic or ethical trajectory of a piece, but I’m not sure. I will say that I have more of a variety of registers to write in after immersing myself in the language of academic geographers, and that’s always exciting, and a good reason for a poet to study anything else in depth.

In working with us to edit THERMOS, you’ll be engaged directly with poetry as a contemporary happening. What’s exciting to you, right now, about contemporary poetry?

I have a biased view, of course: most of my closest friends are participating in the making of contemporary poetry. No other world has ever made as much sense for me. Often when I meet someone I connect with, I like to assume the person is really a poet, even if they’ve never written a word of poetry, and I sometimes try to convince them that I’m right.

No one’s in poetry for the money; I love what Paul Killebrew says about this at the beginning of your interview with him, about poetry as “the cheapest date in the arts.” I agree with him that if poetry and money were on better terms, the possibilities wouldn’t be as open-ended. Of course, there are all the various pressures even in the poetry world, but it’s just not controlled by market values in the same way as other arts. This changes the game in all kinds of ways – the way people have to be invested isn’t greater necessarily, but different. The organizing values are different, or, if they’re not, they’re at least attempting to gesture toward something not yet determined. Am I being idealistic? Sure. That’s part of it too.

Another thing that’s incredibly exciting is the sheer variety of poetic worlds and the number of people that seem to be writing poems right now. And people are sharing their poems in unprecedented numbers because of online forums. Some people might see this as a bad thing, but I think it’s amazing, and I don’t think we can really know right now what the future holds for poetry. So it’s a very exciting moment. Lastly I’ll just say that there are so many people writing good poetry right now, and I feel lucky to be so continuously impressed.

A Brief and Casual Self-Interview with Zach Savich

Thermos editor Zach Savich’s fourth book of poetry, Century Swept Brutal, will soon be released from Black Ocean Press. For the next week, the book is available at a discount via this link. Below, Zach talks to himself about the book, illness, death, friendship, marriage, and NPR.

Where could I even have written Century Swept Brutal?

David Bartone rented our cabin in New Hampshire, on a lake. Maybe you know David and/or know that his fantastic first book, Practice on Mountains, recently came out from Ahsahta, winner of the Sawtooth Prize. Although David wrote Mountains before we were at the lake, I like to think he finished it there, while I wrote most of the first draft of Century Swept Brutal. Consider: in some ways David is better at being places than I am. During our stay, I went for one run, one bicycle ride, and one excursion to town; otherwise, I stared at the lake and wrote. David climbed several mountains, swam with vagabonds, met hitchhikers, caught fish, etc. He also bought a horribly loud Casio. Good sunsets, a grill. We read Gustaf Sobin and John Taggart and Alice Notley and James Wright. One night we borrowed a rowboat and entered the lake using fragile branches for oars. We made it back, after a fashion, and so I dedicated my book to him.

I wrote its final section in the San Juan Islands during Jay and Cait’s wedding. If you’ve been there, you might recognize a certain kind of flower that, if you forgot your glasses, appears to be made of a single, circular poem, I mean petal; or else you can find it in my book. I offer that flower, or poem, to Cait and Jay. This was when we stayed in the little house owned by Cassie’s aunt, which Cassie and Jay and Melissa and Andy and I had stayed in about a decade before, being poets.

I wrote the book’s first section in Maryland, when my father first had cancer again, a year or so before he died. He saw me read poems in public one time, at a college near my parents’ house. I was excited, revved up, and spoke incredibly quickly during the reading. I worried afterward that I had spoken too incredibly quickly. He said, “It wasn’t too fast for me.”

I think he’d rather be alive again for a few minutes and talk incredibly quickly with any of us than read an elegy. If I say the first section of this book is “instead of elegy” I don’t mean “instead” is any kind of avoidance.

What are my further thoughts concerning this book and the death of my father?

Several. For example, in the first weeks of his final dying, we read the poignant texts. And then, being so caught up in daily poignancy, its bodily flagging, we turned to texts of comedy, absurdity, joy. Beckett understood. You shit your diaper or take a drug or lament our mortal fate or shift your grotesque swellings and go on reading. It was just like getting an MFA.

I wondered what books would we have needed—after poignancy, after absurdity—if he had lived another month.

And then I found one, after doing a reading in Virginia, in a beautiful apartment I could have stayed in for another life: there was Donald Revell’s Tantivy by the bed. I have since found others.

I needed this information three months after he died, when I was diagnosed with the same cancer. I’ve lived. Much remains complex. I am grateful.

He was 60. I was 30, the year he’d been when I was born. A kind of perfect math.

More about this can be said, another time. For now: I’m remembering everyone who ever, knowing nothing about me, said that my interest in interesting literature would wither once I’d suffered more. As though experience erodes discernment, and weariness is a noble aesthetic, is wisdom. Now, having officially suffered more, being daily more weary than at any of my previous weariest moments, I can confirm that I want even more from writing and art. I am happy to find it. I hope this book stands to that. To both the want and the happiness and the want.

Finally, I’ll note my joy at finding that this book, Century Swept Brutal, written when my father was only first dying, written before my diagnosis, has lines that have offered me more after those experiences. “The dying dog could barely walk but lunged / like nothing had happened,” I wrote. It’s true.

What else can one say about a book of poetry, like if I was on NPR?

When I said I wrote Century Swept Brutal staring at the lake, I lied. I wrote some of it that way, but I wrote most of it at a McDonald’s nearby, drinking McDonald’s coffee, eavesdropping, looking across a parking lot at a Walmart. My writing required a professional setting, David said, and he’d know—he used to work at McDonald’s. When I submitted the book to Black Ocean, I had the idea that it was about that kind of interstitial landscape, of sprawl, that I’ve known in Coralville, IA, and Lacey, WA, and Hadley, MA, and throughout MD and PA and so forth. Not quite of any region, and yet, one must conclude (because of heavy usage patterns), also intently expressive of each region. Places made of passing through, outside most stories one would tell about one’s life, and yet—here’s a life. Purgatorial, which is another mode, and also not. I wanted to sit there, be comparable to the harmonic hum sometimes achieved by the air conditioner. Thinking of everyone hearing such a tone—is that sound less present than the passing-through place itself, even less a part of consciousness/official experience? But now I think the book is less of those places, more of the harmonic ping.

I also said I imagined that these poems, more than others I have written, were written for my friends who do not read poetry but are hip to other arts. I am grateful to Black Ocean, as for so many things, for understanding or overlooking whatever I meant by that. I hope it is true, but, clearly, it must be a matter of spirit within the poems, not of any concessions to preemptive, condescending weariness, or trying for a type of communication other than the type I believe poems are best at giving (that only poems can offer, and so should). I have written elsewhere about how offensive I find it when people talk about writing poems for “the people” as though “the people” can’t read; they really mean they are writing poems that justify their own impoverished imaginations, their own uninteresting relationships to language. When anyone who has worked with children or whatever population knows anybody can discuss the strangest art and also remember it.

At another point I thought that this book, compared to my other books, was equivalent to The Muppet Show, but with crystals in place of puppets. I love how, in the early seasons of The Muppet Show, the Muppets are all played by poets and are fairly grungy. But I trust them.

Beautiful to have lost anxiety about intelligence, its calculated remainders. If I say I believe in Poetry, now, more than in poetry, I understand myself; whereas in the past I would have been suspicious. I have read as much as possible for long enough not to mind.

At another point I said that this book re-applied my earliest poetic influences, poets of the Pacific Northwest, my formative home, many first found in Copper Canyon’s excellent anthology The Gift of Tongues, which was my gateway. A mood of mists and ponderous passivity that I think has something to it, but that I wanted to approach without its (to my ears, now, when I remember the poetry scene in Olympia, WA, in the 1990s) elements of self-satisfaction, self-mythologizing, simple-mindedness, suspicion of modernity, indulgences…instead supplying my own indulgences.

Hilary, my wife, was at the lake, as well. We would be married in a few months, standing in the Fort River outside Amherst, MA, our friends reading poems from the bank. David read a wedding poem that was published in the latest jubilat, Pam read, Kyle read a poem about watching us do pilates in Jeff’s old room just that morning, we swam, and then we went to Jensen’s going away party. Paid the justice of the peace with the proceeds of a scrapped car: a kind of perfect math. There’s at least one day a week I can’t sleep for the luck of it, astonished at how much better life can be than I would have known to imagine, I say this still healing, I say this grieving, I say this pained. But before that, on our way home from New Hampshire, we stopped at an Indian restaurant in, let’s say, Concord. It reminded me of this Indian restaurant I went to once (alone, with a book of poems) in Seattle, a decade earlier. Where, in my memory, I found a large metal staple in my curry. And I pulled it out, set it on the napkin, and continued eating, paid, tipped, left. I don’t think I was proud or thrilled at the adventure of finding a staple in my curry or that I enjoyed witnessing myself being the type of person who found one, did that. Rather, I think I found it, ate, paid, tipped, left. I remember also that the sauce was fairly salty. Could a poem be such a meal.

The book is in interwoven sections, each a distinct sequence.

Themes include: water, the senses.

Two sections are written in a form of dialogue between a “he” and a “she” that may be of particular interest.

What about the publishing side of things?

People sometimes worry about what will happen with publishing. Don’t worry. Black Ocean is happening with publishing.

Anything else I want to say?

When I was sickest with and after my cancer, I had many friends—poets, many of them—who offered to do anything they could to help, and they meant it. Many would have left their lives and come to where we lived and done anything. Many more whom I know, and probably many I don’t, would have also, had we asked, and many, many more said things (knowing my state or not) that meant a world. Let’s yawn at those who clearly write mostly from an anxious hope for prestige or a particular success or hoping to replicate parts of celebrity culture and media cycle and commerical renown that don’t matter, that aren’t what any intelligent fourteen-year-old or cancerous person or ardent reader of Sobin and Taggart and Notley could care about, and let’s yawn at those who say that’s all contemporary writing is. I have a thousand friends who prove that what we are doing is advancing better values, in complicating opposition, or caring, in art.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t always reply when you wrote or called. I hope to call you or help some way if you are ever in similar days. Because it meant a world to come to and hear your messages. If this new book can say thanks for that, I hope it will, or I hope I will.

Q&A: Paul Killebrew

When Paul Killebrew came in to talk to my class at Tulane in February 2012, we sat on the lawn and he recited “Soonest Mended” to us. What, among the essential things, hasn’t been better since that day? — AS

(February 2012)
What’s exciting you about poetry right now? Why should I be excited about poetry?

So much, so many reasons. I like to think of poetry as the cheapest date in the arts. Consider: of all the various art forms, which has the most attenuated relationship to material success? Poetry. Even the poets who sell the most books, people like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, make no more than a middle-class income from book sales. And that’s in their best years. I’m saying this is a good thing. Why? Because so much possibility opens up and so many wasted questions never get asked when you’re outside the searing glare of an active market. I really do believe that poetry has advanced where other art forms have foundered simply because there is no way to make money off of it.

The other thing is that my favorite human beings are all poets. Sure, like all artistic communities, there are some real doozeys out there, but I’ve always felt like the most interesting poets I know are actually the most interesting people I know, by a long stretch.

Your poems seem to walk a line between celebrating the ordinary and tapping into the abstract (often stemming from the ordinary). How does “ordinary” work next to “abstract” in your poetry? What do you hope to achieve by this juxtaposition?

I have a feeling this will come up a couple of times in the questions that follow, so I’ll offer the following explanation and refer to it in later questions as the “cognitive rhythm thing”, which is a very pretentious way of putting it, but basically I mean that some kinds of writing take longer to process than other kinds, and the time difference is attributable to the different forms of cognition in play. So, for example, reading “2+2=4” happens so fast that it’s almost not reading at all, we all know the statement to be obviously and boringly true, whereas something weirder, like say Noam Chomsky’s famous meaningless sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” cuts against notions of truth (if something is green, it’s not colorless) and ordinary meaning (what would it look like for an idea to sleep at all, much less “furiously”?), and so the mind slows down. Somewhere between these two extremes would be the narrative, expository, or syllogistic passages of which I’m so fond. What’s interesting to me as I’m writing is the arrangement of cognitive rhythms, speeding up and slowing down in a poem, and since my poems’ trajectory is generally aimed toward the end of the poem, I’m very interested in finding out how many ways I can set off the ending through the arrangement of cognitive rhythms throughout a poem. Other poets have written about similar concepts with far more coherence and beauty—I would refer anyone interested especially to Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” which can be found here:

Now, to get back to the question, which was about the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the abstract, the cognitive rhythm thing seems like one explanation, but it’s probably not the only one. Much of the poetry I like involves the movement from the particular to the general and back, which is also the fundamental movement in law (laws are written in general terms, but they usually arise because of a specific circumstances, and they must be applied to specific transgressions)—so maybe that’s just the concept the movie of my life is starring—and sometimes the movement from the ordinary to the abstract and back has a similar feel.

I’m interested in discursiveness as a strategy, and wonder what you have to say about it. I’m thinking of, for instance, the first stanza of “The Sweaty Intimacy.” I’ve frequently found discursiveness expressive of a sort of general boredom or ennui, a leveling of sensation that those emotions produce. Obviously where boredom is a deeply interesting condition. Do you see discursiveness in that way?

To take just the first stanza of “Sweaty Intimacy” (And let me add here a brief explanation of this title, which is embarrassingly overwrought. This phrase is how a legal academic named Alexander Bickel described the relationship of the three branches of government, saying that they must operate intimately, “even if it is often the sweaty intimacy of creatures locked in combat.”), these are basically four sentences that clearly do not add up together into a cohesive proposition or form a narrative or anything like that. Each is its own world.

A typical sentence in the English language carries some pretty hefty baggage about the relationship of beings in the world. Subjects do things to objects, and saying so amounts to a “complete thought,” or at least that’s the vocabulary I learned growing up. I guess because of this background understanding, it seems to me that there’s a lot of lyric possibility in situating “complete thoughts” from different worlds next to one another. Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own that “a book is not made of sentences laid end to end,” and when I first read that I thought, “But what if it was?”

Why is narrative so often the choice for you? How do narrative and prose function in your work?

I usually use narrative to vary the cognitive dynamic in a poem, not only to change the pace in the ways discussed above, but also to situate the poem between its narrative and more lyrical or discursive qualities, “Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified,” to borrow a formulation of Frank O’Hara’s in his essay “Personism” (available at

What’s your sense of the line? Does it change much from one poem to the next?

As I mentioned when we met, I’m pretty terrible with line breaks. I’m not sure how important they are to what I’m interested in, and in many ways I side with Frank O’Hara when he says something similar in the essay linked above:

I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.”

[. . . .]

As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.

Many of the poems in Flowers have long lines, and my reasoning was that if line length sets the breath of thought in a poem, I wanted to extend that breath for as long as I could. Right now all the poems I’m working on have extremely short lines, like one to three words long, which I’m doing partly because I love the short lines of James Schuyler and Eileen Myles and partly because I like the idea of reducing lines to a poetic foot, though a foot conceived both as a conceptual element and a rhythmic element. On this last point I would refer anyone interested to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, which creates poetic feet by placing chucks of lines in quotation marks—for example: “One day, I awoke” “& found myself on” “a subway, endlessly” “I didn’t know” “how I’d arrived there or” “who I was” “exactly”

What is your relationship to the sublime?

I like to think we’re on speaking terms. In Eileen Myles’s review of Anselm Berrigan’s most recent book, Notes from Irrelevance, she writes, “it [the book] generally has an only stoic relationship to meaning. Like meaning might be someone he has a working relationship with. They always nod when they see one other.” I wish I could say that every time I sit down to write it’s like what Stephen Dedalus says in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”—but usually I’m just trying to record what a drying puddle looked like or something I misheard or some snarky comparison that I’ll later try to revise into something that at least appears un-ironic and insightful. I’m much more in the camp of folks who write mostly to see what will happen. I do not expect to write the Great American Verse Novel. One of you should, though.

What is your practical relationship to metaphor? I’m thinking of the poem “For Beth Ward,” where the poem seems to tackle the question to a degree – “Does metaphor / contain us, or do we extend ourselves / out into it?”

There’s a metaphysical question of whether qualities are real entities that we perceive or just imaginative constructs that don’t exist independently of us, and if I’d majored in philosophy I might have something really interesting to say about that, but as it is I know just enough to refer to the existence of this question and leave it unsatisfyingly there. On the more practical level, I think I probably over-use metaphor and simile. I love David Berman, and both his book Actual Air and the lyrics he’s written as the braintrust for his now-defunct band Silver Jews are full of brilliant similes that I try to emulate at every opportunity.

Several times in Flowers, there are short, title-less, italicized poems. What function do these serve? How do you want them to relate to the rest of the work as a whole? Why did you choose this particular device to separate or categorize the parts of your book? Are these to be read as poems in their own right?

I really wasn’t sure whether to use those in the manuscript. A friend said he liked that they gave the book some good “My mother is a fish” moments, so I kept them. The poems themselves were written through this bizarre process of intensely meditating in a public place and trying very hard to transmit words from the static in the air. I know that sounds totally mystical and goofy, but that was the project. I placed them the way I did in the book to give the reader a breather every once in awhile, I mean that’s one of the great things about short poems, the relief of seeing a page with so few words on it.

Certain words/images (such as swimming pools, the color orange) echo throughout your book. Was this a conscious choice? If so, why?

I love having stuff like that pointed out to me. Usually I have no idea. In an interview James Schuyler talks about having his manuscripts edited by Kenneth Koch, and Koch would always come back to him and point out all the interesting words he used more than once, with the implication that he shouldn’t have. To me it’s reassuring because it’s some evidence of a larger coherence that you’re not even aware of, that there are levels of coherence that exist whether you want them to or not.

In an interview with BOMBLOG, you expressed that in earlier incarnations of the manuscript there were lots of poems for specific people (many of them love poems). What lead to the shift towards what the manuscript is now? How do you decide what remains important?

The love poems just weren’t very good, sad to say, but they were written for the wrong people as it turned out, so there you go. I think the best way to put together a manuscript is to try as hard as you can to forget the impulses that led you to write any of your poems, concentrate strictly on the highest quality work you’ve done, and cut out anything that isn’t at your highest level. If you’re left with 10 pages of material, that’s much better than 60 pages of which only 10 are good, even if those 10 pages have zero coherence as a set of poems. Personally I had to give up on any idea of having a manuscript in which all the poems would have been written toward a common purpose or theme. Instead I took what I thought was my best work and tried to sequence it in a way that made it somewhat readable.

In your poetry, you refer frequently and explicitly to Nashville. Rather than rendering place abstractly, why do you choose to state the name of the place you’re describing? Is your intended audience someone who is familiar with the locale, or an outsider getting her first glance at the places you describe? Does an awareness of audience influence your work at all?

In Seeds of Contemplation, the poet and Catholic monk Thomas Merton writes, “If you write for men–you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.” As a Catholic monk, his advice is to write for God. I can say without shame that I write for the reader and that I consider myself my first and most important reader. This often means that within ten minutes I’m disgusted and wish I were dead, but things eek through nonetheless, and it’s like Vegas—sure the house always wins, but they still have to give you a little something every now and then, if only to keep you hopeful.

I think that the question of what audience to write for can be put many ways, but here are two formulations I find useful. Formulation #1: audience is a political issue about who’s included and excluded in the electorate of your readers—whose votes are you trying to get, and whose votes do you not even care about? My complaint with this formulation is basically what happens in the movie Sullivan’s Travels, which I would heartily recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it. In that movie, a wealthy and successful director decides that he wants to make a movie about the common man, and so he disguises himself as a bum and rides the rails, with the idea of getting source material to make something like The Grapes of Wrath (incidentally his working title is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is where the Coen brothers got the title for their movie). But then through a series of mishaps, he ends up in prison and on a chain gang. The prisoners are miserable, the lowest of the low. One night, all the prisoners are taken to a church, where they are shown cartoons, and the prisoners have the most fun they’ve ever had. The director realizes that if he wants to help the common man, he should be making cartoons, not The Grapes of Wrath.

My problem is that I don’t want to make cartoons. So here’s Formulation #2: you’re trying to create beauty, and sometimes doing so requires you to scrape off the barnacles of tradition, to free yourself from the way other people write, and to clear a space for your own personal expression. Inevitably that means some of your writing will be unpalatable to some people, like those who like tradition or the kinds of writing that you feel compelled to banish from your own writing. The problem with this formulation is that while it gives you permission to write as bizarrely as you want, it doesn’t provide any kind of limiting principle or incorporate any competing values. I’m probably somewhere in the vicinity of Formulation #2, but because it’s ultimately a very permissive view, in practice the question of audience operates as a superego-type force, constantly berating me for not writing more user-friendly poems.

The color field painter Mark Rothko said that he thought the highest achievement in western painting was portraits of individuals in contemplation, and he wanted his own paintings to enact that contemplative experience in the viewer, which in my opinion they do quite beautifully. John Ashbery has said that this is how poetry can be political—a reader may have a contemplative experience with a poem that opens new perspectives or truths in a way that may even change the political commitments of the reader. At my most optimistic, this is more or less how I feel about audience, that depth can matter as much or more than breadth.

In your poem “I Love Country Music,” you mention that “Revision is a function of shame.” I wonder if this applies to your own poetry. How much revision do you do yourself – and is it more often small fixes, or total re-writes?

My poems must be awash in shame. The poet Aaron Kunin talks about how shame involves the same ergonomics as reading—head tilted down, eyes downcast, brow furrowed. The same goes for writing. But revision is, for me, basically what writing is all about. I have small bursts of original composition and long, long courses of revision. I love revising, I love the idea that any poem can be improved upon, I love that there’s no finish line. Pierre Bonnard would still go to work on paintings after they were hanging on a museum’s walls. For me revision tends to be all of the above—small fixes, total re-writes, throwing things away, whatever it takes.

What do you mean when you say there is no etiquette in the shower?

That, I’m afraid, is between me and my shower.

How do you organize a poem like “Nashville,” or explain something like “Poem For Cori” to a more tradition-minded poetry audience?

I’ve explained “Nashville” by comparing it to the badhat in Indian classical music—the badhat is an introductory section in which all of the notes that will later be used in the raga are played arrhythmically, and my understanding is that the idea is that the notes are being displayed one by one in an abstract way that will prepare listeners for what is to come. “Nashville” is sort of my badhat, and, as I explained when we all met, the compositional method was really just to meditate on Nashville and try to record words that seemed indigenous to the place as I knew it. Both “Nashville” and “Poem for Cori” are intended to be long, minimal, and tonally flat, to encourage the meditative state I was in when I wrote them. If someone finds the poems boring, I’d say that’s right on target.

Do you consider yourself to be in any relationship to the avant-garde, whatever that is?

So let’s face it, I’m a lawyer. As in, someone who works fully within the currently existing system of power. I like to think my job entails making the system live up to its promises of justice, but still. What I do probably disqualifies me from being in the avant-garde. At my most ambitious I’d say that I hope what I’m doing is advancing the art, though it seems comically self-important to claim that I’m advancing anything. Ted Berrigan completed his master’s degree in English at the University of Tulsa after he’d already moved to New York City, and so they had to mail him his degree. It came right back to the university with a note from Berrigan that said, “I am the master of no art.” Right on.

Incidentally, one of my favorite books by David Antin is What It Means to Be Avant-Garde, and he addresses this stuff much more eloquently than I could ever hope to.

What are you working on now? How does it feel to you, in contrast or complement to this work?

At the moment I’m finishing a very long poem that’s about 70% narrative and, as mentioned above, in very short lines. It’ll be the lodestone of a manuscript that’s basically done and supposed to be published in 2013. The working title for the manuscript is Ethical Consciousness, but I might wimp out and change it. It feels to me like the new manuscript will have a little less variation than Flowers, which isn’t a terrible thing.

Does/how does your work as a lawyer inform your poetry? Is it at all difficult to oscillate between the rigid linguistics of law and the more fluid linguistics of poetry? How similar do you find the meticulous attention to words in each to be?

Both involve careful attention to language, and the hard work of both is constantly revisiting verbal formulations to see if a little tweak here or there will get you just a bit closer to what you intended. Though sometimes poetry is nothing like that, sometimes accuracy is not at all what you want. So I don’t know. I can say that the balance between the two careers has turned out to be totally fortuitous for me. I enjoy being a lawyer well enough, but since I’m also doing poetry stuff I don’t feel like my legal career is the core component of my identity, and that little bit of distance makes it easier to withstand the natural ebb and flow of professional life. Conversely, poetry is much closer to being something like the core component of my identity, and because of that I’m thankful that it has no connection to how I make a living.

Do you feel that poetry is doing work today as a forum for discussing social or political themes? Should it?

I’ve always thought that questioning whether politics had a place in poetry was a little ridiculous. Would anyone ask if politics has a place in philosophy? No—of course politics has a place in philosophy. So are there topics that are available to philosophical inquiry but not to poetry? I certainly don’t think so. There are a lot of other ways to make this argument.

Another point that’s often made is that poetry, in W.H. Auden’s well known formulation, makes nothing happen. I can think of two responses to this. First, Auden is right—poetry makes “nothing” happen, it makes the presence of the void known. What could be more politically motivating than the void? And I mean this with some seriousness—I’m thinking along the lines of what I mentioned earlier about the contemplative experience having an effect on political commitments. The second response is empirical: look at the huge role that poets and poetry have had in the Occupy movements. Of course poetry is involved in politics. Thank god it is.

When it comes to the question of how poetry can engage with politics, poets are doing all kinds of amazing things—giving voice to the oppressed, disrupting the normal operation of language to highlight the power relations inherent in language, expressing the sensations of living through political events, creating narratives for political events, and on and on and on.

Are there any particular poets (or other artists or thinkers) who you would name as foundational to your development as or approach as a poet? Are there others who you feel moved by or spurred by in a very present sense? What is it absolutely necessary that I read?

Here are some things that were/are very important to me:

John Ashbery, especially Rivers and Mountains, The Double-Dream of Spring, Three Poems, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
Ted Berrigan, The Sonnets and the recording of Berrigan reading the whole thing available here:; also the recording of his poem “Red Shift”:
Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems, especially a recording of him reading “For the Chinese New Year and for Bill Berkson”, which I put online for anyone who’s interested in listening:
James Schuyler, especially Hymn to Life, which you can hear him reading here: His novels are also fantastic.
Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses
Eileen Myles
C.D. Wright
Rae Armantrout
John Wieners, especially this recording:
Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets
Joe Brainard, whose collected writings just came out
Tim Dlugos, whose collected poems just came out
Robert Creeley, For Love
John Koethe, The Late Wisconsin Spring
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red, Men in the Off Hours
Nathaniel Mackey, Bedouin Hornbook
Jack Spicer
David Foster Wallace
W.G. Sebald
Larry Levis, Elegy
Christopher Isherwood, Berlin Diaries
Isaiah Berlin, Roots of Romanticism, Two Concepts of Liberty
Wallace Stevens
Arthur Rimbaud
John Keats
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
Henry James, The Ambassadors
Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions
Charles Wright, Negative Blue
John Godfrey, Midnight on Your Left
Tom Raworth, Visible Shivers, Writing
Jane Bowles
Tomaz Salamun, The Four Questions of Melancholy
Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson
Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun
Anne Porter
James Tate
Jay Wright
David Antin

Some younger poets about whom I’m extremely excited right now:

Jacqueline Waters, One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t, listen to her poem “-Phil” here:
Dana Ward, who you can listen to reading “Typing Wild Speech” here:
Catherine Wagner
Anselm Berrigan, Zero Star Hotel and Notes from Irrelevance
Jennifer Moxley, anything you can find but especially Clampdown
Dorothea Lasky
Ish Klein
D.A. Powell
Peter Gizzi
Rachel Zucker
Lisa Jarnot
Graham Foust
Miles Champion

As far as what’s necessary, the only thing I’ll say is that reading widely and constantly will improve your writing. There’s so much great stuff out there that I try not to waste time prioritizing or looking for a limiting principle.

Where do you go looking if you want something contemporary, in poetry?

The PennSound website regularly posts new recordings by interesting poets. I’m a regular reader of the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet. The poet Eric Baus is running their twitter feed at the moment, and he’s extremely well read and always points me in interesting directions. Following poets on twitter is a great way to hear about interesting new work. I like to know who’s reading at the Poetry Project in New York. The best thing you can do is find the poets wherever you’re living and ask them what they’re reading.

(October 2013)
What can you say about the short lines that form the structure of most of the poems in Ethical Consciousness? Were they a generative device? Do you expect readers to treat the linebreaks in a particular manner?

I ended up changing the line breaks a lot as the manuscript came together. Partly that’s because I’m not, in general, all that rigorous about line breaks. My practice in the past has been to break between clauses in such a way that the lines are whatever length approximates the breath of thought the poem is trying to achieve. So I guess I think of lines in terms of mental distance and mental pacing, rarely in terms of phonetic meter, though the music is there and I’m sure I’m not completely unaware of it. I’ve liked long lines that stretch the mind’s breath, and I’ve liked long sentences for the same reason. Because I’m not super particular about the precise locations of line breaks, I’ve also generally made my lines all about the same length. For the poems in Ethical Consciousness, I was thinking so much about the present of the poem and how I myself in writing them tried to be as closely attached to the immediate last words and the immediately subsequent as possible and to push out of my mind the overall shape or direction of the poem. It seemed to me that I could represent those impulses graphically through short lines, but that didn’t come to me until most of the poems were already written, so I went back and changed every poem so that the lines would be two or three words long. Then I went back again and changed some poems back to longer lines on the advice of Josh Edwards, one of the editors of Canarium, who pointed out quite correctly that the short lines didn’t quite fit the diction of some of the poems.

It would be wrong of me not to mention here that I am a great admirer of James Schuyler and Eileen Myles, both of whom have a lot of skinny poems.

As far as how the short lines are read, for me they seem to both speed up and slow down the sensation of reading. Speed up because I move down the page so quickly and because it’s hard not to read over the breaks (by “reading over the breaks” I mean that I can’t stand to actually pause at the end of each line, even in my head, because of how stilted it feels, and so pacingwise I begin reading as if the breaks weren’t there). But the short lines make me feel like I’m slowing down because the visual information forces me to pay attention to each line as a unit, a little like the way the quotation marks work in Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette.

How does the process of writing a 30-pg. poem like “Muted Flags” differ from the process of writing a single-page poem?

The single page poems were generally written in one sitting, at least originally, and then revised in small bursts as the book came together. The long poems I’ve written, including “Muted Flags,” have taken shape over the course of several months, usually arriving in chunks and requiring far less revision when the last line hits the page because I’ve re-read and re-worked most of the poem so many times by then. So it’s sort of the opposite of the lack of awareness of the poem’s beginning and end that I described above. Though as I was writing it I didn’t really know where “Muted Flags” was going; when I got into the long narrative portion, I figured that the story would peter out and I’d go back into the kind of writing you see at the beginning of the poem. But then I felt like I reached the end of the poem within the story, so I hit “stop.”

Would you say that “Muted Flags” represents a culmination of your feelings toward public figures? Or is it more indicative of a floating set of opinions? In a broader sense, would you say that your poems, once published, indicate a finality of thought?

The amount of life energy that goes into status control, even in something as peewee leagues as the poetry world, is heartbreaking. I won’t even go into how bad it is among lawyers. Writing about someone running for office was a way to literalize this: here is a person whose complete meaning is the desire to be liked, and you can’t exactly dismiss him because his desire to be liked has deep justifications in our form of government. But I also thought it was important that you’re hearing the take you’re hearing in the poem from an artist; in my own experience, we as artists can be awfully quick to claim the highest rung on the ladder of authentic living, but I mean come on, this is what I was just saying: we’re all running for Congress.

As far as a finality of thought, let us all pray we never reach anything like that. Even writing about this now, I’m struggling to be coherent because I never thought it through systematically, like an essay. That just wasn’t the point.

How did it happen that “Actually Present” appeared in both Flowers and Ethical Consciousness?

The very ho-hum explanation is that when Canarium was laying out Flowers, the pagination worked out so that there were just enough blank pages to spare that we could fit in one more one-page poem. I’d just written the first set of poems that ended up in Ethical Consciousness, including “Actually Present,” so I sent that one to the editors, and they folded it in at what seemed like the right place. But the poem was completely woven into my idea of what the next book was turning out to be, so I knew even when I sent it to be included in Flowers that it would be in both books. I’m really happy it is, too, because I changed the line breaks for Ethical Consciousness, which, especially for that poem, felt like a way to explain myself.

How did New Orleans influence these poems? What kind of atmosphere does the poetry community have here, in your opinion?

The longer I’ve been around the poetry world the more I’ve come to appreciate what a poetry community does. Another way of putting this is that I feel increasingly guilty about how little I do to support other poets, given how much other poets have done to support me. The atmosphere in the poetry community that I knew in New Orleans was one of generosity and openness. It felt similar to me to the other poetry community that I’ve spent some time with–the community around the Poetry Project in New York City. In both the poets are as interested to hear about how you’re getting by as what you’re writing or reading. Someone wrote that Ted Berrigan reached out to younger poets because he felt that they could be too quick to give up on poetry if they had a few discouraging experiences. I think that’s absolutely right, and I think you can take it further and say that a lot of us have kept writing because people made it known to us that they’re interested.

Robert Fernandez: Q&A

In each of the past two years, Robert Fernandez has agreed to take an e-mailed questionnaire from my classes at Tulane University regarding one of his books. In 2012, a group of students from a poetry workshop class had questions about We Are Pharaoh. This fall, a literature class added a couple questions about Pink Reef. Below, you’ll find the results. Check back tomorrow for a final installment in our two-week feature of Robert’s work. — AS

We Are Pharaoh Q&A (2012)

What’s exciting you about poetry right now? Why should I be excited about poetry?

Like they say about the “spice” in David Lynch’s movie Dune: It extends life. It expands consciousness.

In one interview, you mention “sifting through the wreckage of high productivity.” What does Robert Fernandez look like in periods of high productivity? Where do you do your writing? Do you feel that your writing space has an identifiable impact on your work?

I used to work every day, for hours and hours, on poems. Now, having found a rhythm and a direction, I work mainly in bursts, separated by long periods of dormancy.

I was struck by how many of your poems seem to be constructed of discrete thoughts in succession. How did you work at forming separate ideas into a coherent whole–or is wholeness a concern of yours?

While the poems might seem to jump around, my hope is that they form a unified experience: word to word, line to line, stanza to stanza, poem to poem making up the totality that is the book. Experience itself is never really clearly outlined or paced, and Pharaoh undergoes extremes of feeling, seeing, and desire.

Do you consider yourself a lyric poet? Are there poems in We Are Pharaoh that you consider non-lyric poems? Do you have any favorite poets that fit into the “non-lyric” category?

I am working in the genre of the lyric and out of a certain lyric tradition, which I’d call something like the tragic-lyric, practiced more recently by poets like Hölderlin, Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Vallejo, Celan, Trakl, Stevens, Amelia Rosselli, and others. Beyond a range of conventions, the lyric I think is quite simply a reservoir that when accessed opens up a certain range of potential dispositions that the human animal might take toward existence. If you’re interested in non-lyric work, I’d recommend a forthcoming book by the critic Dee Morris, called, I think, What Else Can Poetry Do?

Do you see yourself as in any way constructing a coherent set of symbols through your poetry? Does that seem like something worth doing, either way?

I’m interested in life and the world and history, so I have no symbology, a la The Book of Revelation, in my work, though certain imagistic and numerical obsessions and preoccupations accrue. These acquire what might seem to be a “symbolic” or occult-like weightiness by virtue of a substantial investment of desire and attention. They are perhaps like symptoms in that sense. On the other hand, the question of faith is essential to my work.

To me, “Bonfire, Jetty” reads like a submissive examination of a sort of ruling, lyric state. Do you ever deliberately try to create the conditions under which your language may be “possessed by lyricism” when you write? Are you pursuing the lyric as an event that allows you to “get on”?

That sounds right. One is “possessed” by the hollowing music that is the poem. It comes like grace to the hopeless and holds open the promise of “getting on.”

Many (perhaps all?) of the poems in We Are Pharaoh seem to touch on the frantic nature of being human – “who compels us with their batons?” “we are always running,” etc. In putting this group together into a book, were you aware of this? Did you intend to relay any sort of philosophy, or specific outlook, through this organization?

I think that Pharaoh is concerned with things like dread and wonder and the violence of being: all things related to the “frantic nature of being human.” It’s also intoxicated with the human possibility for change and transformation, justice and love—possibilities it attempts to convey via beauty and music and a certain profligacy. It also wants to think about, and even at times mimic, in structure and feeling, evil and injustice.

Do you have any epistemological convictions that you feel inform your work?

Only that epistemological convictions are always tenuous—i.e., determined by a context and subject to change. (In this sense, I’m very much a child of our current episteme.)

How has your poetry changed since you first began writing? How did you start out?

I started out very young convinced that poetic work would be the work that I would do, and I knew that I wanted to preserve my commitment to that conviction despite a range of obstacles. I read and took on reservoirs of feeling and thinking from my early teenage years through my early twenties. Only in my early twenties did those reservoirs become available to me as a potential for realized work.

When working on a poem, do you tend to concentrate more on ideas you hope to convey or on the way things sound in the piece?

I try to align listening and thinking, imagination and reality, but sound comes first. Poetic truth is foremost the truth of music.

Do you still see yourself, in newer work, as being focused on “embracing language of desire, abandon, laughter,” as mentioned in your interview with Zach Savich?

I do. Desire, abandon, and laughter unfold new horizons in poetry as well as life.

Many of your poems contain a specific and indefinable emotional crescendo, which strongly impacts the reader’s attention. Can you talk about establishing this emotional effect without necessarily writing in a “logical” or “narrative” manner?

I try to trust the logic of moods, feelings, and sensations, which have their own unexpected syntax and arrive at their own truths. Such a syntax is more acceptable in, say, music or painting, which need not necessarily participate in the language-game of giving information. We expect language to be instrumental and communicative, not a material independently alive, seeing and perceiving.

What is the purpose of poetry, in your eyes? What are you hoping to accomplish when you sit down to do your own writing? Are you writing more for your own benefit, or for a reader – and what difference do you see between those two possibilities?

I agree with the artist Ai Weiwei, who recently said that he is interested in art because it deals in possibilities. Also, with art (and poetry) the mind engages in the existential struggle of finding “what will suffice.” I find that art also hones the spirit of revolution—hones the practice of risk and exposure, of love and commitment—like nothing else.

Are there any particular poets (or other artists or thinkers) who you would name as foundational to your development as or approach as a poet? Are there others who you feel moved by or spurred by in a very present sense? What is it absolutely necessary that I read?

Aeschylus and Sophocles, Archilochus and Sappho, Song of Songs, Pindar, Horace, the Troubadours, Malory, Shakespeare, Milton, the British and German Romantics, the Symbolists, Hopkins, Dickinson and Whitman, the Modernists, Lorca, Cesar Vallejo, the New York School, Elizabeth Bishop, Jack Spicer, Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian-Creole Poetry. I like Robyn Schiff of contemporary poets. Also Mark McMorris, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, and Timothy Donnelly. Mary Hickman. Mark Levine and Emily Wilson. Peter Gizzi and Cole Swensen. Roberto Tejada. Cal Bedient. Many more. You guys might also like my friend Nick Twemlow’s book, Palm Trees. I’d basically recommend reading the long history of the lyric and of tragedy.

Thank you all for these smart and insightful questions. —RF

Pink Reef Addendum (2013)

What do you pay allegiance to in poems?

Thank you for this question, which is intriguing, strange and thoughtful. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you, however, other than the answers the poems themselves may or may not provide.

How do you interact with others’ work in your own poetry? That is, how do you incorporate it, work off it, defy it, etc.?

I think that most artists acquire reservoirs: stores of life and attention that constellate and, by a mysterious gravity or as a consequence of an event of some kind, reach a critical mass. So there is an entire background of reservoir acquisition that’s lent itself to any work of art, whether that work directly alludes, appropriates, and cites or not. As to moments of allusion and citation in Pink Reef (you’ll find Stevens, Blake, Lorca, and others), these are little bits of language that have embedded themselves in my attention and stayed lodged there for years. They’re like splinters or glass: I can’t get rid of them and they irritate and call me back to them to scratch them out but I also love them so I try to use them, work through them, and maybe internalize/digest them. Through the four books that I’ve written, I also cite and re-cite myself, I’m afraid to say. And yes, I’m also interested in defiance, but less so in the manner of killing the literary greats who have made it impossible for me to proceed than in doing what poets—from Milton to Blake to René Depestre—have always done: give the grand Fuck You to the tyrants, the deceivers, the servile and complicit and comfortable who make change impossible and for whom words like righteousness, justice, care, love, and freedom mean nothing.

Does any particular music influence your poetry? Many of the poems in Pink Reef have a repetitive, musical quality, and I wonder if there’s anything you’d pinpoint as a specific source.

Great question. Lately I’ve been listening to Scriabin, A$AP Rocky, and Lana Del Rey. I like Le1f a lot, too. I listened to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue about 100 times this past summer. We were subletting a place that had a record player, and I was able to find a first printing of Kind of Blue for around $60. The purchase, which was a bit excessive (I later gifted it to a friend who really appreciates vinyl), was mainly nostalgia driven in that it was an important record for me as a teenager. Around the time I was writing Pink Reef, I think I was listening to this live recording of Sasha @ Hyde Park Café in Tampa, FL dated October 2, 2008. It—the recording—is funny. The quality is awful, and there is this woman in the background who keeps asking “Where’s Brian?” and saying “We took them without anything, yeah…” Then later, when Sasha really gets the crowd going, a dude breaks in and shouts “Oh my fucking god!” Really very funny. But the set is incredible. I’ve always thought that Sasha gets—maybe only occasionally, but he does it—very close to resonances that are genuinely, deeply dark, uncanny, wonder soaked, poetic thru and thru. He’s been at it a while, making records when I was still a teenager in South Florida in the 90s, where the club scene and the electronic music scene had its own particular inflection and stars (check out DJ Icey’s first album, for instance; it’s great). Anyway, I mainly listen to house music, all manner of hip hop, and classical. This summer I moderated a talk on Schumann’s Dichterliebe and its use of Heine’s Lyric Intermezzos. It was fun. I got to chat with a soprano and a pianist about the relationship between language and music, sound and sense, and also sequence, which the Dichterliebe, Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, and Pink Reef all are. All of which is to say: music has always been very important to me and my work.

A Conversation With Robert Fernandez (Re-printed)

This interview, conducted by Zach Savich, originally appeared on this site on June 20, 2011. We re-print it today as part of our feature of Robert Fernandez’s poetry leading up to his participation in the PXP 2013 Symposium in New Orleans. Please check back tomorrow for a more recent Q&A, and again Thursday for a series of plates from Robert’s book, Pearls Before Swine — AS

It wasn’t quite warm enough to sit outside but I sat outside and read Robert Fernandez’s first book of poems, We Are Pharaoh (Canarium Books, 2011), my bench bisecting school groups on their way to the greenhouse. Inside, they must have seen iridescent petals different to the touch than you think and sturdier, and the overflowing hanging bleeding hearts: Robert’s poems feel similar to that flora, forged of lush and crisp careening forms that show “Dionysian” and “relaxing” can be synonyms, that a “ring of keys” can be a “meadow,” that art can shimmer in “plates of hunger / & luminosity” with desperation that is also empathy. They left me, like good books do, unable to read for the rest of the afternoon.

Instead, I sent Robert some interview prompts—not questions, but concepts his book brought to mind. He responded to a few of them with incredible depth, and also sent us a poem from his forthcoming collection Pink Reef (Canarium Books, 2013). I’m pleased to present Robert’s thorough, thoughtful answers here, preceded by a poem from his first collection.

—Zach Savich

Hell Me Down

We take stock of the forearms:
They are like red snapper, slick
And sharp; they are like glass.
You see I am falling through

My pleasure like an intimacy
Of mirrors rubbing against
The face and you cannot uncut
The stomach: it is a die.

Here is the heat because we must begin.
Red rainbow spread like a hawk’s gills;
Red rainbow tied off in its black holes
Which dot the ceiling because it is enough.

A nurse raises
Her beak from my chest:
All my vultures are warm
And with gold discs for heads,
All my vultures are form.

Lord find me,
Who is another? Where is the flesh
Of gain? Venture and thighs
Of gold and living glass?

I forget that I consented to wander
To wander by the pier; I consent
That I wander and am like paper:
A black kite wet with night.

Grid I am good and like the Aeon,
A child playing with colored balls.
In the hall because they know me,
The young ones, the eternally. They see

The stela in the flesh of my throat they divine
The throat-rod and its glyphs. Bright to burn
And nurse on cold marrow-like light:
It is midnight and I am speed cut

Into thirds of day; I am threes everlasting &
Hells of foment. Then I stand like eternal resistance
Like hell. No one who walks over this
Ground senses it is sound: look again:

We find ourselves on the shore
And the flame follows us it flows
Through our speaking it is here.
I have failed again, I am no longer I am failed.

I am first to run aground I am seen.
Let us style vital light: New moon again but I am light;
We are not otherwise we are seen.
How shall I stand how shall I be seen?

The morning curled around us like warm like
I am clasped by infinite waters, I am seen.

1. Tradition, the lyric

The lyric is a perilous topic, one that turns poets and critics into priests arguing for either the sanctity or insidiousness of the genre—if it can even be agreed that it is a genre. Let’s grant that it is possible to traverse 2,700 years—from Archilochos to Shakespeare to today—and still arrive at a set of intact lyric conventions. Some of the most salient characteristics of the lyric might be: compression; the sense of an “I” speaking to a “you”; apostrophe; hyperbole; associative logics; distinct experiences of time—e.g., a sense of simultaneity/the ecstatic; refrain; heightened imagistic and/or sonic intensity; constructedness (formal, metrical, etc.). The lyric is non-narrative, non-dramatic, non-didactic.

While genres are indeed useful in establishing frameworks of intelligibility, I’m less interested in cataloging and comparing traits than in posing questions about the lyric I can’t safely answer. For instance: Is it possible to think of the lyric as not only a set of genre conventions but as an accord that seizes on a given material—whether language, paint, or bodies—under the right conditions? Something is possessed by lyricism, it becomes lyrical. Or is the lyric a mode of revealing (say poiesis, i.e., the kind of making that aligns with nature as springing-forth) in which things emerge in the light of their constitutive foreignness? Which is to say, is the lyric language that, while seeming to come as naturally (as self-directedly) as leaves to a tree, presents a surging, elusive world? Is the lyric-as-song simply language echoing its own immanent emergence and passage, language resonant with the bare fact that things are, that existence is, rather than is not? And can the lyric even be considered an event—something other than the mere sum of its parts—without overlooking historical context or losing its integrity as a genre?

Whatever the case, it seems reasonable, as Jonathan Culler has argued, to think of the lyric as more than just “overheard speech.” Lyric language might as convincingly be described and accessed as a kind of haunted singing which makes that which is most familiar to us, language, strange, and in so doing reveals the human being’s essential strangeness—reveals that one is constituted by difference and always at home in otherness. This would amount to a reversal of that problematic strain of the lyric that fatuously seeks to make the home and its inhabitants all the more intimate and familiar. We could speak of the lyric as an artifact capable of registering and transmitting the experience of modernity; of the lyric that poses alternatives to capitalism’s nefarious effect on the human capacity for valuation—namely, its reduction of everything to the status of a commodity. There is a sense of lyric language as the language of birth, joy, or upheaval; of love, intoxication, or praise (in line with which, we might consider the lyric’s relationship to things, to naming). While poetic genres like the ode, hymn, or elegy may deal more narrowly with these concerns, with each it still feels as if we’re safely within the terrain of the lyric. Of course, we shouldn’t smugly or recklessly employ the term if that means overlooking other practices or genres. And one wants to stay alert to the dangers of passivity and euphony, which as Celan pointed out “more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horror.”

Although the lyric is hard to pin down, it is clear that it would be rash to simply abandon such a rich and potentially transformative reservoir. I think that in We Are Pharaoh lyric language is often in conflict with itself. Conflict is in any case structured into the language of an epoch that pitches itself toward disaster even as survival (the preservation of both one’s life and one’s way of life) is held up as its foremost priority. The book’s particular forces and concerns attempt to mirror this logic. Units of sonic and imagistic intensity are either disparately constellated or constrained by formal logics and the logic of micro-narratives, initiating a struggle between erotics and necrosis, figures and their dissolution, or, alternatively, suggesting a desire for style as transformation. Perhaps the language’s intensity, as your email put it, is a function of its conflicting urges to erase, transform, and affirm itself.

Valuing tension in the poem has a bit of a controversial history. Nevertheless, in my work I consistently find myself trying to establish the conditions under which something like a struggle might emerge. Struggle is of interest to me in that, if it takes, it appears endless, ongoing, alive, and that it asks that the work submit to its own design and pursue its own values.

2. Grandeur, the sublime, who’s real

I’m less interested in grandeur as such than in embracing language as desire, abandon, laughter. To hell with anyone who feels it is their duty to discipline excess or ambition. This is, after all, art. Why feel guilty, ashamed, or frivolous for pursuing what kindles, spurs, and gives pleasure? Furthermore, it may indeed be possible to invest in questions of vulnerability and responsibility while also attempting to engage a spirit of joy and courage. When, at sixteen, Rimbaud says of the poet “Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnamable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!,” the “adult” in me winces, but I also remember that a sense of innocence and serious play are vital to both one’s work and one’s world.

As to the sublime: We generally understand it as a staggering, ineffable limitlessness, correct? I admit that I feel invested in poetic language as a coming up against or an unfolding of limits. These days the sublime would seem to be more relevant in a consideration of the apparatus of global power than the awesomeness of nature. And yet that coruscating fog of integrated military, economic, institutional, and media technologies may in fact be unthinkable (it certainly can’t be met face to face). Maybe it would be interesting to reinvest in a sense of the Romantic sublime, to seek out fresh astonishment in the presence of some visually arresting primordial immensity. The problem is that we’re so accustomed to spectacle that such immensities, if not immediately placing one at risk, are only likely to elicit the tourist’s array of uninteresting clichés and inanities. Dread is arguably a more productive starting point for thinking about one’s shared finitude. It presents itself in the poem as an experience of our exposure to a groundless and irreconcilably unfamiliar world. One takes up residence in the unknown and unknowable, sustained by supports/activities (e.g., language) that are inherently uncertain, at risk. These supports, which bear the burdens of the past, provide only a temporary ground upon which a work or world might be situated.

In technological modernity, we can track an ongoing sense of being haunted—by language, images, commodities, bodies. And yet it’s increasingly easy to feel, especially if one has a seat at the table, untroubled, fleshed, streamlined—all crispness, fluency, and versatility. However, it’s also very easy to feel—this especially if one does not have a seat at the table—like a zombie or an animal (I would say “ghost” but ghosts sometimes speak). I’m interested in the ease with which one can pass from fluency to paralysis (and in the difficulty of passing back again) as well as in the trouble of effectively articulating either (each, in different ways, are conditions in which language has withdrawn). If Pharaoh otherwise tilts toward grandeur, it’s less about grandstanding and more about exploring the liberating potentials of generosity, love, and, as I said, innocence and courage.

3. Landscape

I had actually recently been thinking about certain poets (Stevens, Crane, Bishop, Brathwaite) for whom there is arguably a relationship between landscape and time. We find ourselves in the poem, say, as in the petrified remains of history—language reveals itself as time and appears brittle or crushed or powdery; there is a sense of language as fossil, heaving, or dispersal. Or we are in the poem as in some intricately contoured present, a radiant immediacy of detail and sensation (“infested / with tiny white sea-lice…,” “fresh and crisp with blood”). Or we occasionally sense the presence of an inhuman outside and its non-time or other-than-time: “A gold-feathered bird / Sings in the palm, without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song…”

I grew up in Hollywood, Florida (the exact landscape of Larry Clark’s Bully). Whatever landscapes have been imprinted in me are Florida landscapes and Caribbean landscapes. Using the word “imprinted” (a very Romantic notion) makes me realize—this with the hindsight of seven years spent in the Midwest—that it does feel like some psychic plates were stamped with the repeated exposures to those skies. On the ground, there are ports, diaspora and ethnic communities, spectacles of wealth, wealth disparities, varieties of speculative investments—none of which would radically distinguish the place from any other but for the fact that all are glazed in a near-beatific tropic luminosity and in the candied light of a distinct South Beach nihilism.

Ironically, We Are Pharaoh is probably more directly indebted to these environments than is my second manuscript, Pink Reef.

from Pink Reef


I will reform,
re-encounter love’s law
I will follow
after the bright
seeds of marrow are
shaken from the thigh
& the thigh placed
on a stick in
the faceless gallery
I will devote,
for thou hue
thou gravel
thou hearse—
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
the blood
cold and light
cold and light
cold and light

The question of landscape is no doubt also a question of boundaries, of limits and of the varied efforts to differentiate what one is from what one is not. The dangers of such efforts extend from the interpersonal and political to the ecological. It seems to me that poetry not only shatters illusory integrities, it helps make the outside that is already inside more raggedly manifest.

With that, Zach, I’ll say my thanks to you and the THERMOS editors for the prompts and this forum.

Living Review: Robert Fernandez’s “Pink Reef”

For this living review of Pink Reef, I talked for awhile with Dan Rosenberg about two poems from the book. It was a natural tack to take: our respective poetry classes recently read the book in common and discussed it at length in an e-mail exchange, part of the PXP program that Robert Fernandez will participate in a couple weeks from now.

The nature of the living review is to occupy a wider swath of time than ordinary in living with and thinking about a book. The dialogue that follows is, then, a beginning — something Dan and I will return to in time, as different poems or different ideas strike us. Please find the poems discussed, reprinted from Pink Reef, below the text of our dialogue. — AS


AS: [“I am shrill”] feels to me, even early on, like a departure from the general tenor of Pink Reef. The speaker is isolated as he appears to me to be in most of these poems, but is in a distinct physical space, behind the veil of a waterfall, bringing a strange lucidity to the act of perception.


DR: It’s funny that you’d refer to it as “lucidity,” since lucid is derived from lux, light, which plays such a central role here.


AS: Right. But I’m thinking of it in terms of the other kind of lightness — like a feather falling. I think of snakes, for instance, as having a sort of heaviness about them — a gravity, a specific weight. But with all this water and color falling around, the snakes cooling themselves seem to me to be relieved of that heaviness. They become cool in the way that water becomes mist. They are light. Perhaps in the sense of illumination that you mean, as well.


DR: I wonder if this poem unites the two? When my students wanted to talk about this one, they focused on the permeability of the landscape here, how the repeated “take their color” shifts from a literal reading (“falling water / & the sky” do lend color to things) to more imaginative and impossible bleed-throughs. The odalisques receive not just the reasonable color that comes from light refracted in water, but also the unreasonable but suggestive color reflecting from the snakes.


AS: I’m struck by how unified the poem actually is, how direct — whether or not it’s unifying the different sorts of lightness we’re discussing. The litany of things you mention, each of them giving color to the odalisques, seem at first to be conditional, suggested — but in fact there’s nothing conditional about the poem. It’s pure statement. The act of perception is over at the outset, isn’t it?


DR: I agree entirely that the language is unconditional, potent here — but I actually tend to think of this poem as a process of discovery, as the magic by which perception is transmuted into beauty. There is something so insistently visual about this poem despite its opening claim to shrillness. It seems obsessed with the interpermeability of landscape and body (or am I just obsessed with that and seeing it here?), of the material and the immaterial. I know that Robert claims among his predecessors the surrealists, and I can see their fundamental project of bringing together public and private realities as a driving force here, and in the book in general. (That’s another of my obsessions. Do I just love this book because it lets me think about what I want to think about?)


AS: [“we become soft”] is another poem I’d call “insistently visual” — another poem water moves through. In this case it wells up, it comes pooling through blue holes with all the weight in it that I saw drained from [“I was shrill”]. The speaker’s condition is more complicated here, however. The poem opens with a surreal transformation of the plural speaker into “soft / light in purple wafers,” but then that plural speaker disappears (almost) entirely into another permeable waterscape.


DR: Does the speaker disappear, or is the rest of the poem a litany of transformation? Grammatically, we could read this poem as a list of things the “we” becomes — which, indeed, erases the speaker by making them everything.


AS: I think that’s probably the most interesting way to read the syntax, but it’s not definitive — I can as easily see the transformation you’re talking about finish off in the second couplet.


DR: Yes, or even the first.


AS: And it’s this richness of choice in terms of how to treat the speaker as transformed into or observant of the waterscape that makes this the more satisfying poem of the two we’ve discussed.


DR: Are you trying to start a fight, Stallings?


AS: See, [“I was shrill”] is rich and direct in its sonic qualities, and I take a lot of pleasure in that. But while the series of statements that make up its landscape of perception are interesting, and resolve in another purity, the beauty of rainbow light, I’m ultimately left with a single understanding of that landscape, a single perceived thing that hinges on each listed thing’s relation to the odalisques. But in [“we become soft”], the complexity achieved by the transformation of the plural speaker into “soft / light in purple wafers” carries through the rest of the poem’s opening out, suggesting and then attaining a spiritual level that the first poem, for me anyhow, does not.


DR: I agree on the relative syntactic stability of the first poem, but I have to take issue with the notion that such stability limits the landscape to a single significance. When I think about how that poem unfurls I find myself following trails of thought — how this poem creates its physical reality, how it’s a poem of creation, how its gleeful embrace of the impossible goes unremarked (as if all this color-swapping is natural, as it might be in a dream), etc. — all buoyed by the sonic and imagistic pleasures you described.


AS: What you’re saying is that you see the first poem as also attaining a spiritual level. And I would agree with that, upon reflection. The two poems are more similar even than I’d thought to begin with, perhaps. Their motions are different, their syntaxes are different, but they’re aimed in a direction that is, if not exactly the same, similar. Like most of Robert’s poetry, they move with, or toward, spirit.

from Pink Reef

I am shrill,
barking through

a waterfall
at black rock

these odalisques
on the moss

take their color
from the falling water
& the sky

take their color
from the snakes
that cool themselves

& drink
between the rocks

take their color
from the fine

the rainbow’s

from Pink Reef

we become soft
light in purple wafers,

a depth of

blue holes

in the limestone

& spirits,


from limestone punctures,

manta rays,

in limestone fountains