Archive for the ‘Conversations’ Category

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

An Interview With Daniel Khalastchi

Nearly three years ago now, I talked with Danny about Manoleria in an interview to be included with Tupelo Press’s Reader’s Companion, released on their website concurrent with the book’s release. It was one of the most interesting conversations about poetry I’ve ever had, even as, or because, the conversation drifted as much to Springsteen and Mobb Deep as anything. I’m excited to have the opportunity to put that interview before you again today, and encourage you to check out the rest of that Reader’s Companion if you have a chance. We’ll conclude our feature of Danny’s work tomorrow, with new poems from his aforementioned manuscript, Homewrecker. — AS

AS: I’d like to begin with a discussion of disruption — of the body (by unnamable, alien force), of rhythm (by in-line caesura), of dinner (by men with axes), all the forms it takes in this collection. Each form of disruption is a creative or propulsive force, the first and most present radicalism in Manoleria’s poetics. I’m invested from the very beginning in your distinctive use of spatial caesura, and am particularly interested in understanding its technical importance to you. In fact, to start there, how does disruption — whether technical, narrative, metaphorical, or otherwise — operate for you as a compositional force?

DK: Disruption, indeed, is something I think about often when writing. The poems in Manoleria came from a time (in my life, in the world) when I felt very disrupted. When these poems were written, I was living in Provincetown, finishing my fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center — I was far away from the people I loved, the fear of securing a job and health insurance overwhelming me on a daily basis, and I was listening to news pour in from my small kitchen radio about a collapsing housing market and a seemingly endless parade of recently uncovered secrets about war, torture, and extraordinary rendition. As a person living in the world, I didn’t know how to react, and as a writer I wasn’t sure I could react.

When I did begin to write, the poems took the form of a recurring narrator who was (quite literally) physically destroyed while the world, the people around him, took little notice. Not such a subtle metaphor I realize, but to me this felt like the best way to examine the utter catastrophe I (like everyone?) was witnessing at the time.

As the poems became more and more sonically driven, it became important to me to bridge the gap between what I heard in my head (a stutter, an uncertainty) and what the reader would encounter on the page. I began experimenting with space, with caesuras, and with punctuation that arrived when the audience didn’t expect or want punctuation, or wasn’t sure how to handle it. Big inspirations to me during this time were writers/artists like D. A. Powell, Caryl Pagel, Nas, Claudia Rankine, Gertrude Stein, Matthea Harvey, Bruce Springsteen, John Berryman, and Mobb Deep.

Music has always been an important part of my life, and to be honest I’m not sure where I’d be without music. That said, I heard Springsteen say in an interview once that he gets away with certain things lyrically that an author/poet would not because he has, “the music raging underneath.” On the page, however, we only have our words and the way we present them — since I didn’t have instruments/a rumbling beat surrounding my poems, I felt it was my responsibility when writing Manoleria to create that “rage” through hiccups/gaps/gasps/delay/disruption. My goal, then, is for you (as a reader) to hear/read the poems the same way I do — so that we (and pardon the terrible cliché here) hear the same song, even if we hear different singers, from different speakers, in different cars, driving down different highways.

AS: I want to pick up later on these comments about music.

However, let’s follow this for a moment: “Not such a subtle metaphor,” you say, and certainly one of the most striking aspects of this book is its unapologetic use of physically grotesque description — of violent forces working their way through the narrator’s body, and of violences imposed on the narrator from without. Whether metaphorically, psychologically, or purely in terms of imagery, there is nothing subtle in the presentation of Manoleria’s main current. It is pure voltage. And, in the wake of the visceral experience of reading these poems, I’m inclined to think that subtlety is overrated.

Psychological terror is something I’m accustomed to in my reading of contemporary poetry — it’s the physical element foregrounded here that I have encountered much less frequently.

What’s interesting to me about it, and to bridge this back to disruption somewhat, is that for all that the world is unflinching around the disruptive force that the narrator might logically become, so too is the narrator entirely calm in the face of all that afflicts or disrupts him. It’s as though there is a mutually derived accord between the disruptive force and the would-be disrupted audience that above all else remaining calm is necessary in these circumstances. As a reader, I find this sort of in-narrative agreed-upon equivocality to be rather calming. I wonder if you could speak some to the impact of an equivocal (or dogged, or numbed) tone on these poems, and your experience writing them?

DK: These are wonderful questions, Andy. While I’d love to give you an impressively original/mind-blowing answer, the truth is that the poems in Manoleria were written with a kind of disturbed apathy because that’s what I saw going on around me at the time.

What I mean to say is that when these poems were shaking loose from my typewriter, we (as a country, as Americans, as humans, etc.) were involved in a war, in torture, in an election cycle that was just beginning to dominate every aspect of the news, in an unemployment crisis, in a healthcare crisis, in an educational crisis, and no one seemed to notice or care.

Now, obviously, that’s a gross generalization — people noticed, but it didn’t seem to me that anyone (including myself) was doing anything about what was happening. When I began to think about writing during such a politically charged/definitive time in our history, I was hyper aware of my limitations (or, perceived limitations): I came from a supportive, middleclass family; I graduated college, went to graduate school, was being paid (at the time) to do nothing else but write in a cottage on the shores of Cape Cod. Since I was in such fear of coming across as (gasp!) pompous/naïve/presumptuous, I wanted to present these poems (this narrator, these terrors) in as much horrific-nonchalance as possible. Maybe it was silly of me, but the thought was that if I could make readers feel the grotesque, if I could bother them by how little the world around the narrator (and the narrator himself) appeared to care about what was happening, maybe the meta-connection to the present state of our crumbling existence (not to sound hyperbolic) would somehow suddenly become more viscerally apparent.

In the absence of all this politically charged rhetoric, I think maybe the poems in Manoleria remained “calm” or quiet because in the face of such glaring and obvious wrongdoing, shouting doesn’t always seem to help. Sometimes, I drive down the street and watch as kids push each other on sidewalks or listen to students on campus use potentially hurtful language as they attempt to make their friends laugh. As an outsider, I am reassured when someone stands up for himself or herself. When a person can vocalize a defense (“Hey, stop pushing me,” “That word is offensive, you shouldn’t use it”), this seems to signal a strength that suggests a recognition of borders/boundaries/ respect/power. What bothers me, however, is when no ones says anything — when we watch the kids bully each other for sport and then seem surprised to hear of a school shooting; when I walk past a homeless vet being ushered from underneath the awning of a sandwich shop and don’t ask the students taking pictures with their smartphones why none of us have enlisted.

I fear, here, that I’m not fully making sense, so I’ll leave you with this thought: It’s uncomfortable to watch people not be able to defend themselves, but it’s potentially more disturbing to realize they don’t want to. That discomfort, that personal/social disruption (to come full circle) is something I’m very interested in, and I hope the poems in Manoleria bring that to light in some way.

AS:It’s safe to say that Manoleria does bring some of that personal discomfort to light, and in such a way as, for instance, a pedagogical theorist would find sound (if you’ll pardon the comparison): that is, this book forces me to begin an interrogation of my own response. Confronted with violence, I remain calm — feel, even, calmed. That’s a situation few readers would claim comfort in recognizing.

But let’s return to the thoughts about music (as an underpinning, as an aspiration) that you brought up a while back. There are multiple tracks I’d like to head down on that subject. Leaving aside the obvious — artists are constantly inspired by and in conversation with other artists, living and dead, in and out of their own discipline, in the same way that they are engaged with, say, landscape or memory — what impact has music had on your writing, in this book and in other writing?

I think, for instance, of the titles taken from Mobb Deep songs in your extended sequence, “Send Weight” (a series not included in Manoleria but published in Thermos) — and you mentioned both Mobb Deep and Nas as presences in your daily life as you wrote Manoleria. Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) is legendary for the coldness in his line from “Shook Ones, Pt. 2,” when he says, “rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone.” And while the coldness is coming from the opposite end in your figuration of violence and non-response, it seems like one place where you might easily have found an example.

Does much of your inspiration stemming from music come from content, as here, and as in your interest in the social situations handled in Springsteen’s music? Do you find hip-hop beats or flow in the current of your own poetic rhythms? Where does music enter technique for you?

DK: I’ll say, first, that I’m overjoyed we are able to discuss Mobb Deep and Springsteen in an “academic” interview. Second, these questions are incredibly interesting to me, and I’ll do my best to rein in my response.

Music, to me, is the most important aspect of poetry. The rhythms, the cadence, the sonic bravado (or lack thereof) of any given poem are what allow a reader (this reader?) a clear shot at the heart. While some poets rely on music to push/pull their pieces in new and engaging directions (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dora Malech, Michelle Taransky), others use it more sparingly to signal shifts I find utterly breathtaking in their subtlety (Denis Johnson, Zach Savich, Marc Rahe . . . the list could go on). I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes the music of poetry is a knocking 808 drum machine, and sometimes it’s silence. For me, word choice and rhythm happen so intrinsically that I do my best to avoid attempting to disguise or analyze it. Like a rapper (say, Prodigy in “Shook Ones, Pt. 2”), when I write there is something in my head that is driving me towards certain words and their combinations. While I don’t have a slick beat thundering in my headphones, I do have a feeling (in the case of Manoleria, a feeling of destruction/political upheaval/uncertainty, etc.) that I want to say something about. If you think of that feeling as a beat, the full “music” of the piece comes together when lyrics/poetic lines are laced on top. What I mean to say is that Prodigy, with that grimy beat from “Shook Ones…”, wasn’t likely to say “kiss you on the cheek, hug you tight cause I love you.” The beat, the feeling it created, allowed him to lyrically represent the violence he felt and saw growing up in Queens. The sound let him let go, and I think I try to allow that same thing to happen to me when writing.

To say this more succinctly, and to go back to the Springsteen quote I mentioned earlier, while I don’t have a beat/“music raging” underneath my poems, I still want my poems to sing. The rise and fall of each syllable, each gerund, each moment of punctuation, is there hopefully to help the reader feel/hear/connect to whatever it is I’m trying to get across — I’ve never stabbed anyone in the brain with their own nose bone, but I understand the anger Prodigy was surrounded by in his youth; my dad never worked in a factory, but I understand the backbreaking labor Springsteen’s characters go through on albums like Darkness on the Edge of Town. Those songs, those musicians, move me — I guess I use music in my poems to try and move the reader in a similar way.

In an attempt to answer this question specifically, I should state more exactly that music plays a direct role in my writing. Every morning, I get up and spend an hour or so reading hip-hop blogs, listening to new rappers, new songs, and new flows. Although it sometimes feels that the rap genre (like all art forms) is “played out,” or that there can no longer be a fresh way to present the same formula (beat, 16 bars, chorus, more bars, more chorus, etc.), I’m always inspired by what I hear. The drive, the determination of some of these artists reminds me to “stay hungry,” as they say. They get me excited about word play, about language, and about what it’s like to have a voice with something to say and a world around you that doesn’t necessarily want to hear you. (Sounds a lot like contemporary poetry, huh?) I go back and forth with musical genres and styles — some days I’ll only listen to Tommy Dorsey, others Springsteen, still others Jimmy Witherspoon. But most days, I stick with hip-hop, and I take walks or drives around town when all I do is listen to one song over and over, focusing intently on how the artist was able to pull me as a listener in and out of the track. How they maintained control. How they kept me from “switching the channel” — how they kept me in it. (As a side note, this week that artist/song was Freddie Gibbs’ “National Anthem.” If you haven’t listened to this, you should. Right now.)

I once heard a rapper (I forget who) say that rapping was like boxing — that every time an artist picks up a notepad or gets in the recording booth, they have to believe they’re the strongest/most well trained/hardest person in the world. If not, and they get in the ring with someone else who’s more hungry, more tough, they’ll just get eaten alive. I don’t mean for this to sound like I believe, in any way, that poetry is a competition, or that I want to be better than my peers — what I mean is that through music I’ve learned that a certain amount of confidence is necessary, and that taking risks and chances with my word play/presentation/disruption (we’ve come full circle again!) keeps me from falling in to the “only twelve notes a man can play” thought process that (at times) seems to inundate all art forms, poetry not excluded.

My final point is a small one: Springsteen is the greatest poet who has ever lived. But maybe that’s something we can talk about later.

AS: There are many avenues to take out of that response — including: Springsteen as the greatest poet, how and why? But I’m most interested in the issue of confidence.

I think we would agree that artists must move with confidence — even something beyond confidence, a non-acknowledgment of confidence — through whatever ground they deem necessary in order to achieve the rhythm/music/form/content that constitutes meaning for them in writing poetry. That there is no terrifying realm of consciousness that should be held outside the materials of a poem. But for the reader — even the serious and seasoned reader of literature — that is not necessarily true. There are territories that a reader might justifiably not wish to engage, for whatever reason. Leaving aside the question of how much a writer owes to an audience, I’m interested in hearing from you about some of the territories you found, as a poet, difficult to traverse — and where you might expect readers to encounter restraints and limits in themselves. I ask because there is evidence in the music of the Manoleria poems of deeper disruptions than the sort we discussed earlier on — things you must have had to reconcile with yourself in order, as your narrator does, to press forward.

DK: I may have said this before, but as a writer I find great comfort in discomfort. For me, there is so much in the world that is upsetting and utterly frustrating (poor education, wars, political issues, etc.) that while I may choose to avoid these to an extent in my daily life (I’m not one to picket, to proselytize my beliefs in any particularly public forum), my poems are a chance to get in the face or the head of another person (of myself?) and say, “Hey — isn’t this fucked up?”

I don’t mean to be crass, but hopefully you see my point. Certainly there are many territories I wish not to (and don’t) write about — I avoid (for the most part) writing about my family’s history (escaping Iraq) because it’s difficult and I don’t feel I have the right to write about this. I also avoid writing direct “confessional” pieces because if I wanted someone to know about my failed attempts at living my own life, I’d leave my journal on a public bus or start a blog.

Maybe the bigger question here is how I expect my readers to deal with the issues/images/violent dismemberment that occurs throughout Manoleria, and the truth is I simply hope they trust me. I worked hard at avoiding “shock value” in this book. I’m not writing to show how weird my brain is, or (honestly I’m shaking my head here) to be funny. Poetry — and I stress that this is a personal opinion — is not meant to be stand-up comedy. Too often contemporary poetry feels like the poets are out to try and amuse their friends at a bar where everyone is wearing skinny jeans; like poetry has become easy, in the sense that (strangely?) it is suddenly a hip thing to do, and if a person makes a few jokes and breaks a few lines, they’ll have a book done in no time. I don’t want Manoleria to read that way. I want the discomfort, the moments where a reader would rather turn away or close their eyes, to be somehow balanced with a more engaged, purposeful stillness. Maybe that’s why so many of the poems in the collection are “narrative” — it was very important to me when creating these pieces that the reader not feel like I was saying anything just to say it. I wanted there to be a feeling of deliberateness — perhaps that leads to the “calm” feeling we discussed earlier — and I’m thankful that the editors at Tupelo saw that in the book.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that they owe their audience everything and nothing — they just have to remember that the reader only has what the writer leaves on the page. After that, misinterpretation/alternate readings/etc. are fair game. Hopefully Manoleria doesn’t ask too much of the reader, but also doesn’t ask too little. Hopefully that impulse to want to cover one’s eyes from the proverbial car-crash of images, but still peek through to see the wreck’s aftermath comes from a quiet voice somewhere in the collection telling everyone: there, there — yes, this is happening, but it’s okay.

AS: All right, so you called Bruce Springsteen “the greatest poet who ever lived,” and there’s a part of me that’s inclined to agree, largely for temperamental reasons. What I want to know is what you mean by that statement? How would you justify that claim?

DK: Listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town front to back four times in a row. Listen to The River (all of it), and then put on Nebraska, turn off the lights, and spend three days only eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the floor of your apartment. Make note of the control. The ability for one man to assume the voice of a country (its politics, its people, its economic diversity/frustration/limitation/need), and then try to give me another writer who is able to achieve anything close in a total run-time of roughly 159 minutes. Then we can talk about justification. Am I right? (I get all hot and bothered when I talk about Bruce — maybe my claim can’t be justified, but Springsteen is the one who first showed me what was possible as a writer, if I just opened my eyes; if I just looked out the door, the window, down the stairwell. If I just saw. In fact, I get a very similar feeling every time I listen to Nas’s Illmatic, but maybe that’s a conversation for another time.)

AS: I’ve encountered a question many times with the primary word “responsibilities,” but I feel that an artist’s primary responsibility is to the art, so I want to frame this slightly differently: What do you see as the possibilities of the poet in public conversation? I mean primarily political conversation, but interpret as you will. Who are some poets who have recently advanced these possibilities for you?

DK: Every poet has different responsibilities, and maybe every poet also has different possibilities. That said, I think a poem has the chance to cause action — whether that’s a fiery riot by a critical mass in objection to political tyranny, or a sudden understanding of what to say to a lover and how to say it. In other words, if we can get poems out there (which is easier now, in some ways, with online journals, etc.), they have the possibility of (gulp) changing the world. For me, as I’ve mentioned before, I feel this change, this call to action, often from musicians/hip-hop artists, but there are also many poets/writers who have greatly advanced what I understand to be “possible” on the page. I’m not one for lists, but I will say that the writers whose work I return to regularly for this reason are Roberto Bolaño, Leonard Michaels, Claudia Rankine, Dan Beachy-Quick, D. A. Powell, Jack Gilbert, Robyn Schiff, John Berryman, Vinnie Wilhelm, Inger Christensen, Mario Bellatin, Matthea Harvey, and James Wright. Obviously I am forgetting people (James Galvin, Suzanne Buffam, and others) but these writers/poets all show me, every time I pick up one of their books, that there’s no limit to the power of language. I owe a lot to all of these writers. It’s that simple.

AS: Finally, since you finished writing Manoleria, what are some books you’ve read, films you’ve seen, experiences you’ve had (etc.) that have altered the context of the book for you in some way?

DK: After finishing Manoleria I went on a pretty big TV series kick that I’m honestly still trying to work my way out of. I didn’t have television for a good stretch of the last four years, so I’ve worked pretty hard to play catch up when I can. One show that has made me think about (albeit in different contexts) the themes raised in Manoleria is the beautiful and amazingly under-appreciated Friday Night Lights. Aside from the strange dip in season two (possibly because of the writers’ strike) I think FNL does a terrific job of highlighting the struggles of everyday Americans, everyday people. Like Springsteen, the show touches on everything and everyone — it covers how economic class is driving our country apart, investigates how bad political decisions are impacting our educational system, examines (daringly, by contemporary television standards) the role religion plays in social/personal decisions and actions, and shows people finding a way to survive in the face of obvious hardship and adversity.


While I hope Manoleria doesn’t read as a “family drama,” the themes I’m discussing in the collection are not unique to my poems. Friday Night Lights seems to have similar aims, just with pretty actors and a sexier drawl. If you haven’t seen it, it’s highly recommended.

I’m not sure if that’s the answer you’re looking for. Obviously the election of President Obama, the book The Dark Side by Jane Mayer, my move to Milwaukee, and other experiences/events/etc. have all altered the way I look at Manoleria — but isn’t it more fun to talk about television?

Daniel Khalastchi: First-Book Conversation (Re-printed)

We first published this conversation, on this blog, two years ago this week. What I find most interesting in re-reading the conversation this week is the fact that many of the concerns Danny expresses in the past tense in his wonderful public letter are posited in the present tense in these answers. I’m grateful for both. — AS

TH: How has having a first book out changed how you think about your writing?

DK: I used to think (when I was young, silly, naive, etc.) that having a book out would mean finally getting that Bentley I always wanted and having jobs thrown at me left and right. Yet, to be more serious for a second, I think I actually thought it would give me the chance to really explore poetry in ways any writer who hasn’t gotten their foot in the door may not feel able to.  But in truth, it’s made me more nervous about both the act of writing itself and my personal connection to the global megaphone. I find myself asking more frequently now, “what do I want to say/why would anyone care to listen to me/how come I suddenly have all these gray hairs?”

Writing has become more stressful, but I’m not sure I would change that.  Once Manoleria entered the world, I realized I had to stand behind it, and I had to keep moving. It’s easy to write a bad Danny Khalastchi poem. It’s been more difficult to write somewhat-bad-but-also-somewhat-interesting/possibly-good Danny Khalastchi poems since the book was released, and that’s what I’ve taken away most from the experience.  I don’t want (as a writer/artist) to ever be complacent. I’m proud of Manoleria, but I also know nothing is guaranteed.  Like many other poets with a book, I have to dive right back into the “prize” system. I’m back to getting rejection letters and small notes of “we like this but we can’t take it,” etc.  Though it would be nice to be like some of my fiction writing colleagues (money, agents, cocktail parties with jokes about astronauts!), poetry is the real art. It lasts. Since Manoleria came out, I’m just trying to make more things that will continue to do just that.

TH: You seem to be a various and prolific writer. Is Manoleria a capsule of a specific time, or of a specific mood returned to in the midst of many other projects?

DK: It’s strange to admit this as often as I do, but the initial draft of Manoleria was written on my typewriter while I had a residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  I had maybe a month left on the Cape, and I remember waking up every day with the weight of a brick-filled laundry basket pressing on my kidneys.  I was anxious and afraid that the time I had that winter/spring would (possibly) be the only time in my entire life where someone afforded me the opportunity to do nothing but write.  I read and wrote a lot that year, but everything seemed stale and young and (for lack of a better word) repetitive.

While my own writing was lying flat and shaved in my mind, the news from around the world was doing just the opposite to my body. A new election cycle was starting, we were in the middle of wars on multiple fronts, and information was coming in daily about torture and what these things truly (right word?) meant about being an “American.” Suddenly, I was energized. I wanted to try writing about these things, and I gave myself (possibly for the first time in my writing life) complete freedom to do so.

I had a painting by the artist Justin Richel over my desk, and I wrote every morning and afternoon poems that I didn’t really look at for three months. When I finally did go back and see what had come out of that specific time in my life, Manoleria was there. All packed up. All ready to go. I’ve worked on many projects prior and since completing that collection, but the actual writing of Manoleria was as uninterrupted and focused as I’m likely to ever get.

TH: How do you see your work in what’s happening now in poetry? Are there other first books out there that you feel like yours is friends with?

DK: The closer you read and pay attention to the “aesthetics” of a given press or “school” in contemporary poetry, the more you can become frustrated with what appears to be complete and utter writing towards the middle.  There is a lot of slapstick poetry in the world today, and that’s not something that really gets me excited.  Having said that, there are many first books that I would hope Manoleria could friend-request on Facebook and get a kind acceptance.  I’m thinking here of Arda Collins’ It Is Daylight, Shane McCrae’s Mule, Srikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors, Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies, Jericho Brown’s Please, and Nick Demske’s Nick Demske (a book that I’ll argue from the top of any building you put me on is not reckless humor—that book, and author, have serious heart).

I also think here of the work of Dora Malech, Caryl Pagel, Marc Rahe, Suzanne Buffam, and Robyn Schiff whose books/chapbooks/and individual poems continually inspire me and my writing every time I think/read/head to the typewriter.

TH: What poems or lines from your book feel the “youngest” to you, like they most show your development (though you remain fond of them)? Why/how?

DK: Juvenilia shines brightest when you least expect it to, and it keeps humming and glowing no matter what you try to do to eradicate it.  There is part of me that wants to answer this question by simply saying now, today, the entire book feels “young” to me. But I have a flair for being dramatic. To pick a single line or poem from Manoleria to illustrate this shockingly youthful ignorance may be hard, but I can do it. For instance, “Audible Retraction” is a poem I appreciate for its detail/drive toward the disturbing, but the last two lines (the rhyme of “flesh in my teeth and screw in/whatever’s in reach”) seem forced and heavy. Like I was more excited about the sounds than the image. In fact, I’ve never read that poem in public for that very reason.

I have other examples of where I believe I missed the mark in Manoleria, but in the end I think it’s okay that some words/phrases/poems/sections/structures feel young. It’s my first book. Maybe my only book. It’s a collection of poems from a specific time in my life and the world, and it reads (for better or worse)—I hope—like a documentation of that era.

An Interview With Caryl Pagel (Re-printed)

I had forgotten that Caryl Pagel inaugurated this blog four years ago with the interview re-printed below. I hadn’t forgotten the interview — how could I? — but I had forgotten that it was the first thing we printed. It seems natural that it should have been. If you’re so inclined, you can read the original post here: it has a picture, where this re-print does not.

Each month, THERMOS conducts an interview with a past contributor. Our poet for July is Caryl Pagel, whose wonderful chapbook, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences, published in 2008, is available from Factory Hollow Press.

Caryl answers our questions about craft, and offers a new poem.

THERMOS: How does what you’re writing now differ from the poems we published?

CARYL PAGEL: Formally, what I’m writing now is more “traditional”—a try at structure, stress, counting. The poem that was published in Thermos (“Hear One Cry Out”) was part of a longer series that struggled to create a very specific physical space—both within the poems and within an imagined world. Many of those pieces are punctuated by “horizon lines,” and account for certain uncanny and terrifying occurrences that take place at a fictional farm. More recent poems (a small collection of which can be found in my chapbook) include gaps, in-betweens, and the spaces that separate religion from spiritualism, war from chaos, flora from art, memory from grief. They attempt to question the act of naming as tribute, or collection—and the practice of investigating and labeling nature removed. There are storms, wars, levitations. Appearances by William James, D.D. Home, Hareward Carrington. They unfold within restraints (sonnets, blank verse, syllabics, etc.) in hopes of highlighting the “scientific” sense of the subjects.

TH: How important is thinking about poetic movements — contemporary, historical, conceptual — to your ideas about the poems you write or would like to write? Do you see your writing as participating in identifiable aesthetic traditions, impulses, or communities? As trying to change or invent them?

CP: Not very important, at least not to my writing. Movements become forms, and although I’m interested in structural forms, it would be claustrophobic (to me) to commit to an ideological, thematic, or conceptual form for an extended period of time (life?). I participate in many traditions—a bit from here, a bit from there—but I hope that each new poem, or project disrupts the “rules” or obsessions of my last poem or project—that it creates its own limitations. At least, it’s helpful for me to believe that. Currently, I’m thinking about what sort of aesthetic tradition or poetics might come from the mixed influence of Inger Christensen, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Taggart.

TH: What were some of the first poems/poets you loved? How do they seem to you now? How do they relate to your own work?

CP: Some of the first poets I loved: Mike Ness, Ian MacKaye, Tim Armstrong, Glenn Danzig, Iggy Pop. The first formal poem I ever wrote was a pantoum about Ian MacKaye. The list still seems relevant, but lacking in girls. Perhaps that explains my current (on-the-page) favorites: Dickinson, Niedecker, Moore, Guest, Christensen—and also, my love for the dynamic music and emotion in Berryman and Hopkins.

TH: If you had to give a brief lecture on some aspect of poetry right now, what would you enchant us with?

CP: Spiritualism, the occult, dark matter.

Dark matter composes more mass than non-dark matter (what’s seen). In other words, apparently, there is more to account for in nothing than in something. Can this lecture be all questions?

A few months ago, I attended a Café Scientifique discussion on dark matter at The Map Room, a Chicago bar—the source of much practical information. We had trouble hearing the scientists through the din, but left transformed anyway.

TH: How do you feel about the different formats you have been or could be published in (established journals, newer journals, chapbooks, books, online, limited-edition projects)? Which particularly suits your poems?

CP: I’m drawn to print journals, still, over online, though just barely, and probably out of a nostalgia for slower pacing, more time. It’s interesting how the same poem moves differently depending on how it is published, especially long poems. My piece in Thermos is an example of that, I think. Online it seems much faster, more fluid, and “whole,” and on the page the reader pauses (visually, rhythmically) in certain moments along with the natural punctuation of a page-turn.

Last spring, I was lucky enough to have a small chapbook of poems published by Factory Hollow Press. The editors/publishers were wonderful, smart, and open to my input on how the chapbook would look and feel. I was able to design the cover, choose the size, etc.—great experiences, and ones that I know aren’t always possible when working with a larger press. I love any form that a book might come in.

TH: One of our editors, Jay Thompson, has written about your work elsewhere) and wonders about the necessity of rupture in your poetry — why do it, why scramble stories? Do you compose or conceptualize by field? By deletion? By choreography?

CP: The poems Jay mentioned (along with others from that manuscript) were primarily composed by sound, rhythm, and a desire for the disruption, interruption, and rupture of the farm “scenes.” I had a mind to sustain “plot”—though not necessarily narrative. Lots of space, moving silences. The horizon lines were both obsessive and surprising to me—a visual indication of breaking that became architecture. The poems also attempted to activate gothic tropes: suspense, doubling, a haunted house, omens, ghosts, unexplained agitation. Jay’s term—“proprioceptive”—is relevant; haunting is always physical, the apparition appearing, disappearing, appearing again elsewhere.

I also love that Jay mentions Barbara Guest in his post. Forces of Imagination, in particular, is a favorite of mine. In “A Reason for Poetics,” Guest says: “The conflict between poet and poem creates an air of mystery…Mystery with its air of surprise and, better word, audacity. At once unexpected dramas have entered the poem. The search for its originating mystery now becomes an adventure. Poet and reader perform together on a highwire strung on a platform between their separated selves.” I like the thought of the poet and reader treading the tensions of a highwire, experiencing either horrible vertigo or amazing balance depending on the other’s gestures, twitches.

TH: What’s something you noticed about the poems — or a particular poem — by other contributors in the issue of Thermos you were in? Things that intrigue you? Techniques you’d like to try or have tried? Ways you see your work as distinct from or related to other poems in the issue?

CP: Thermos (#1) contains several poems whose lines are permanently seared into my heart, along with, and alongside the “greats.” Moments of them strung together have become a jumbled, looping chant. Mis-matched lyrics to a song? When I leave my house in the morning, walking down the steps, I hear a mishmash that goes something like: “Don’t die, little lemon,” “we’re just the grief of a thread,” “I am queen,” “I am queen” “millionwindowed into earth’s closet” “Measure I. Heard you fall,” “I have lived above it forever…”

A new poem from Caryl Pagel:

Natural Science and Religion

One foot one petal off—just—just adjusting the great modern                                 debate All exper-

iments are destined to fail but by failing gain might & thrive                                         History began

with an I I cannot identify I felt an Ivy—                                                                     Ivy me The sense

of what’s seen is not absolute science but sometimes the seen                       seems best Some say if

we do the Lord’s will we will thrive but I’ll ask us what if we                                 attend to the map?

Would you remember? Read I of the robin ‘fore I spotted—                         a Throatwort wrote me

Caryl Pagel’s poems have recently appeared in Gulf Coast, GutCult, New Orleans Review, notnostrums, Parcel, and Thermos. A chapbook of her work, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences, was published by Factory Hollow Press last year. She lives in Milwaukee.

Four for Zach Savich by Brandon Shimoda

Brandon Shimoda’s The Girl Without Arms (Black Ocean, 2011) is a stunning book of visionary depth and mesmerizing incantation, particularly when read in connection with his preceding and subsequent collections, such as O Bon (Litmus Press, 2012). Generous and interesting: his responses to the interview prompts “Vision vs. Images,” “Abundance, Wreckage, and Insurrectionary Prettiness, & How Much Can a Moment in Poetry Bear,” “The Direct Address,” and “‘I Should Be Telling You about Maine’.” 

The Girl Without Arms begins “For a moment seems / the only way.” Let me thank Brandon for the moments that follow those lines in the book and for the moments below, each an only way. ZS


by Brandon Shimoda


I lived for two months in a friend’s apartment in Seattle. I was in the midst of looking for a place of my own. It was the fall of 2008. My friend’s apartment was spacious, old, with white walls; consisted of books, bookshelves, tables, desks, plants: a perfect sanctuary. His was my transitional space. He was then in New York—I had the place to myself. Almost as soon as I had gotten settled, I started to see black shapes on the white walls, traversing the walls and the ceilings. Some pressed forth from the white walls, hung bunched like bags; others bore the weight of mounds of black dirt—moving slowly; others hollow, waiting to be filled. I took notes on their shapes and the immediate conditions. I referred to them as graves. They never touched the floor. I wanted them to. I decided—arbitrarily, confidently—that if they touched the floor, they would no longer be able to hold their shape; they would lose gravity and disappear.

As I write this—early 2012—only one of my grandparents is dead: my father’s father, Midori. He was born in Hiroshima (1910), died in North Carolina (1996). Two months after his death, we convened in Death Valley to scatter his ashes. A memorial cairn was built of rocks we each chose from the hill across which his ashes were scattered. Traditionally, there is the ritual grave and the burial grave. The ritual grave is where people gather to pray and make offerings. The burial grave is where the dead are actually buried. The ritual grave is public, accessible. The burial grave is often in the wilderness, remote. Sometimes even spouses and siblings forget where it is and thereafter never find it again. Fifteen years after my grandfather’s death, in November 2011, we convened again in Death Valley. This time, we were unable to locate the hill or the memorial cairn. The stretch of Death Valley between Boundary Canyon and the dunes seems to be nothing but hills piled with rocks. It possesses a separate memory. We ultimately agreed on a hill not far from the road, at the top of which was a scattering of rocks—a disbanded pile—and a hole in the ground the size of a small body.

I saw a dim shape forming on the wall between the foot of the bed and the wash-stand… Before sleeping or just on wakening, there was a solid shape before my eyes, no luminous cloud-pictures or vague fantasy, but an altar-shaped block of stone. When I was very young, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was being antagonized by lines—geometric lines—floating in white and depthless space though occasionally crosshatching a field of sand. I once screamed so loud I woke an entire hotel in Florence. I cannot explain what the lines were doing, only that they were horrific, behaved like a swarm. The poet Christine Hume told me once that her daughter—maybe 3 or 4 at the time—had a nightmare in which there was a single line on the ceiling. Or maybe there actually was one. The blind monk Hoichi was able to re-enact the entirety of the tragic Battle of Dan-no-ura by singing and strumming his biwa before a congregation of ghostly fires in a moon-black cemetery.

I was twelve when I first visited the city of Hiroshima. My sister Kelly and I walked ahead of our parents along the east bank of the Motoyasu River, between a stone wall sloped steeply into the water and a manicured hedge in front of the hollowed-out Genbaku Dome. It was Saturday, August 18, 1990. I visited again twenty-one years later, the first week of August 2011. It was the sixty-sixth anniversary of the bombing of the city, August 6, 1945. August 6 is also my birthday; I turned thirty-three. It was our last full day in Japan. Lisa and I were staying in a hostel near the Genbaku Dome. Lisa prepared a breakfast of fruit. At 8:15 in the morning, we stood with fifty thousand people in a park between two rivers and listened to the tolling of the memorial bell, a sound, with its encircling silence, I was not prepared for.

One idea proposed by the Manhattan Project scientists early in the development of the uranium and plutonium bombs—dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively—was to drop, moments before the bombs themselves, sirens emitting a deafening noise, so that the people on the ground would be compelled to look up into the sky, wondering what was making such a terrible sound, and with the flash from the bombs shortly after, be instantly blinded.

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.—Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where on encounters them is language.

I don’t remember any of the flowers or trees, or their names, in Hiroshima, in the city or where we hiked on Miyajima in the Inland Sea. A description would be closer than what I might actually remember, though even that would be pre-verbal. My great-grandmother, Kawaki Okamoto Shimoda, could neither read nor write. She designed an insignia she used to sign official papers, including the travel documents she needed to immigrate from Hiroshima to Honolulu, in the early 1900s, when it was still legal for Japanese picture brides to enter the United States. The insignia appears to me, her great-grandson, far more complex a signature than the Japanese characters of her name would have been.

One month after my grandfather died, and a month before his ashes were scattered in Death Valley, my grandfather visited me. It was morning. I was sleeping on a foldout couch in an otherwise empty room in the house I grew up in. I was the only one there in the house. This was October 1996. I was asleep when a loud thunderclap woke me, and as I opened my eyes with a start and sat up, there was a surge of total light. Every light in the house had turned on. At that moment I felt first with my body something moving in the hallway to my left. I turned to see a dark figure mounting the final few stairs of the staircase, coming up into the hallway. The dark figure was that of a man. He was dark as if charred; later I would say he was like a man of ash. His hand was on the banister. He was rising into the hallway, facing forward, with his head tilted down. Reaching the top of the stairs and turning right into the room next to the one I was in, the man of ash, with his head tilted down, became clear to me. The man of ash was my grandfather. He was there in the house. All that had happened—from the thunderclap to the lights turned on to the man of ash rising the stairs into the hall to the recognition that the man of ash was my grandfather to my grandfather turning right into the room next to mine—had happened in a matter of seconds. I threw myself off the couch and into the hallway, and followed my grandfather into the room.

NOTE: Italicized passages from H.D. Tribute to Freud and Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project.


I dropped out of my freshman year of college and burned everything I owned. It was the spring semester, 1997. I knew it was coming—as though foretold from without—so I gave away (sold, donated) most of my books, saving them from the flames. I did burn maybe two-dozen: Science Fiction seemed especially appropriate. Otherwise: everything ever written, printed, received; maps, notes, notebooks, poems, stories; drawings, collages, paintings—on paper, canvas, wood; letters, postcards, birthday cards, photographs of friends, family, holidays; cassettes, CDs, socks and underwear. I saved a few items of clothing, two small tape recorders and a guitar.

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment.

My friend John Melillo—writer, musician—emailed me the above-quoted passage a couple days after we first met. It was September 2011. The passage is from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. I wrote back to John, I love the greased pivot between chaos and order—greased, now, by song. And the song being “like a rough sketch,” almost that the sketch of a calm and stabilizing center must remain a sketch, to keep its entrances and egresses—AWAY from that center—open, or else—what would happen if the sketch was realized? And I went on to write, I’ve always been interested—curious—about the compulsion towards the inventory or catalog in poems facing into an incomprehensible event—that the mind both reverts and confirms in prediction its automatic nature—an instrument, a counter, to which John wrote, I like what you say about listing/enumerating. The reduction into numbers of lists—or even the unstable numbers of a verse entirely against or outside “versification”—being the precise point between the abstract that calms and the concrete that confuses. Naming, counting, (rhythming, then) sees (hears) everything else as the same everything else (Thales: everything is water) (countable, skippable, matter not things). The sound bounces off things and echoes back as resounding/space…which of course very quickly dissipates into chaos. To which I wrote, I’ve been thinking about the “sketch” of that “calm and stabilizing center”—and how there is something absolutely HELLISH about that center, something psychotic (sociopathic?) about transmuting one’s experience into listing, enumerating. I read or listen to poets in those modes and moments of listing/enumerating, and think that though they might be achieving some small concentration of the SUN, they are also surely closer to TOTAL COMBUSTION—we don’t actually want to die peacefully, do we? We only say we do—or some people say they do. Because, how familiar is peace? There is always SOMETHING else. Anyway, that “sketch”—it truly confounds. And then went on to write, I’ve lost myself—I need a couple of deeply considered lines about clouds… The center, however, is like an eye inverting itself into a mouth. To which John wrote, I think that’s it, exactly, to ask, “How familiar is peace?” Because the center is always “a sketch” that adds itself to the conflagration, it is always an invention, just as unfamiliar as the outside it creates (and from which it ultimately comes). I don’t know if enumeration actually brings peace so much as the possibility of power—a sketch of power—a kind of controlled circuit: the familiar only becomes so because the new, unfamiliar, unconscious even, is held fast. I think the psychotic thing is that grasping, that tenacious tenuousness, at all costs—symbolically, of course, the cost is always failure/death. Nothing really changes about a situation because a circle is drawn or a center is formed—since it’s all the chaotic mashing of bric-a-brac against bric-a-brac anyhow. The thing about the list is that its very self-sacrificial tenaciousness/tendency is, of course, melancholic, messianic, and cold: to remain ordered in that way is a bit disturbing. To put it perhaps too simply (and I don’t even know if I’m talking in metaphor or reality at this point): it’s perhaps most RATIONAL to go insane—to GIVE IN—to events in the midst of war. Or, it’s insane to be sane in those moments. But if Hobbes is right and we’re in eternal war with everyone else all the time (and in war with time, too)…

While listening to the poet Joanna Klink read a poem in a gallery in downtown Missoula, Montana, in front of a large picture window, black but for reflecting Joanna’s back and the faces of the audience—on a quiet night in 2007—the poem intense and unraveling, propelled by exasperation, a deep concern for people entrapped, the amplitude of every person and thing from whom and from which each pulse has been snapped, all of us, love, herself, the poem, the precariousness of the poem in holding it all, the disaster in the attempt, the disarming beauty of it happening before us—I thought of my friend Phil, who I grew up with and who, one night many years earlier, attempted to throw himself through a large plate-glass window on the first floor of the Knights of Columbus Hall across the street from St. Mary’s Church in a small town in Connecticut. The window was also black. We were standing on the outside of the window looking in. It was winter 1992, or maybe 1994. It is not that Phil wanted in to the Knights of Columbus. He wanted to break the glass to give himself a shard with which to cut himself open. Nobody would break the glass for him; he was attempting to do it himself. The glass was firm. People were inside the Knights of Columbus, seen through the glass as amoebic prefigurements. Phil’s twisted face reflected through the amoebic prefigurements. He had to dismantle everyone there; his future was in the shard. He had to bleed everyone out. He did not want to die. He never wanted to die. He wanted to be relieved.

I understood my friend then as an organic integrity struggling—working—at the margins of his own being—not to mention at the margins of the world, which don’t actually exist; the center can be measured in concentric circles in mere inches from where any of us are standing—and thinking—believing—that since existence is in a state of continual expansion, how exactly like the black walnut tree in that field in central Missouri he is: amid destruction, self-destruction and chaos, not a single cell is out of place …


The poet Miklos Radnoti knew he was going to die. I said this to Josh and Zach—a different Zach—Schomburg; Josh—Joshua Marie Wilkinson—at a sandwich bar—a bar that sells sandwiches—in Tucson, Arizona, one night. Over sandwiches, simplifying. There was no doubt; Miklos could feel—could smell—the bodies closing in. Maybe that was the thing: there was no doubt, therefore how could there have been, in that knowing, faith? And who is that figure standing on Orion’s shoulders as he, Orion, rushes blindly towards the sun, standing with the hopefulness of someone who can speak directly into Orion’s ears through his or her kneecaps? It has yet to be proven that the underworld yields less of a fruitful life than the world above. Right? So it is maybe difficult to say who leaves who, who turns away from who, who loses out, who wins, who immediately perishes, and at the expense of which parts of the body. Even if I am staring directly into Josh’s or Zach’s kneecaps, not to mention into my friend in Seattle’s kneecaps, or Midori’s—Hilda’s kneecaps, Christine Hume’s, Christine Hume’s daughter’s, Hoichi’s kneecaps (inked with holy sutras), my sister Kelly’s kneecaps, the kneecaps of the Manhattan Project scientists, Walter’s kneecaps, Kawaki’s, Gilles’s, Felix’s, John’s kneecaps, Joanna’s kneecaps, Phil’s kneecaps—there’s no telling if either or any of them, or you, might dislodge a knee or leg or arm or two or four or six in my chest to free the final words.


My friend Elisabeth wrote me a letter once from a cabin on an inlet near the coast of Maine. It was the cabin—down an overgrown path through the woods; in the summer fireflies and white campion—she lived in for a few years off-and-on. It was a single room, a bed, two tables—one large, one a desk—an enormous and old wood-burning stove, black, a couple of chairs, some shelves and a sink. The cabin sat on a slope of rock fogged into the tides. Growing up through the rock: Goose tongues hollying out like cloched fruit / Among deadstock / Mist has head and groundcover. Red / Flowers knocking green mud to the knee. I spent a week there in the summer of 2008. Things were not going well in my life. I was then living in Montana, soon moving to Washington. I needed to be in Elisabeth’s cabin. And to visit Elisabeth, who has always brought me back to the earth. My sister was getting married the following week, on a farm in upstate New York, and she had asked if I would officiate the wedding. I was feeling massively un-fit for the role, but could not say no to my sister. So I spent a week in Elisabeth’s cabin, drinking rhubarb whisky, working on a puzzle of boats in a harbor, and writing: notes for the wedding, notes I titled Disquiet, which would then become poetry, then eventually The Girl Without Arms. I started writing these notes in another cabin, in Rock Creek, Montana, where my friend Lucas was living. I had moved out of my house—or been kicked out, I don’t remember, exactly—and was sleeping on the couch in Lucas’s single-room cabin, this one on the bend of a creek. It rained for weeks. The creek was rising. With the creek at the door, I wrote two poems, the two that would become the first two poems in The Girl Without Arms. From them and there to these: I had in Elisabeth’s cabin, in addition to her books, which she kept on a shelf high above her bed, three books from the small public library, all coincidentally by poets named Robert: Creeley, Duncan and Pack, the last of whom I had studied Stevens’ Auroras of Autumn earlier in the year. It was by the test of their minds that I wrote the speech I delivered beneath a tree at my sister’s wedding.

Gordon Massman reviewed The Girl Without Arms on his blog, Gordon Massman’s blog—which, at a quick glance, seems to now be defunct—and in his review he mentions the above-quoted lines: Goose tongues hollying out, etc., saying, Regardless of whether hollying and clotched are actual words (they are not), I cannot imagine goose tongues doing that to fruit, nor mist with or without a head and groundcover. And I definitely do not have the power to understand this sequence of images. Goose tongues are commonly known as sea plantain (plantago maritima), a perennial, primarily coastal, plant, native to northern North America, including some parts of Maine. They resemble the tongues of geese. Gordon writes that he cannot imagine goose tongues doing that to fruit, though I don’t know what he means by doing that to, despite very much liking the possibilities there. The line is like: Goose tongues hollying out like cloched fruit: an action, yes—a performance—but not an acting or performing upon, at least not as I originally thought. Maybe it lacks a kind of truth—not finding itself in the upsweep. Gordon also questions whether hollying and clotched are actual words. Actually, he says they are not. He’s half right: clotched is not a word, and neither is it in the poem. The word in the poem is cloched, as in: cloche, white netting used to protect plants. Maybe Gordon misspelled it? And hollying, as in: holly, a shrub, with white flowers and red fruit. Maybe I could have drawn a picture? Actually, I did, or attempted to: I wrote a poem. Gordon could have said simply that the poem is shit—at least then his contention would not have been necessarily wrong. Actually, his main contention, at least in looking at these particular lines, is with what the poem has not offered, that is: taken away from him, as he says, I cannot imagine … And I definitely do not have the power to understand. I’m not sure how I feel about having written a poem that has elicited such feelings of deficiency in a reader—I am reaching especially into definitely—though I feel this is not exactly what hemeans. He’s also not saying the poem is shit—his reading his far more engaged than that. Though I don’t aim to be understood, I don’t know in which direction to turn when a poem fails the imagination, or when a poem enforces the assumption—even if false—that power must be summoned outside of itself—All truth is the transference of power (Ernest Fenollosa); or imagination’s failing is enforced, unwittingly, obliquely, or matter is not converted into energy, but into a kind of debilitating fog, even if momentary, and is there.

Once, about a month after first meeting Elisabeth, I absent-mindedly called her Liz. She had to remind me that her name was not Liz, but Elisabeth. I can still feel her look of terrible and accusatory disappointment. It was a moment of false familiarity—a moment which had divested itself of the need, for whatever reason, to pay genuine attention, which must be renewed, radicalized, in every moment, as the moments accumulate and overlap, faces and names and white nettings, white flowers, red fruit spinning through chaos and confusion to coherence. And yet, I am happy that Gordon—in whose name I feel the trawling of fog over the ripest goose tongues, tonsils even—gave some part of himself to this passage—among others that he did—in which I was also trying if not to summon power then at least find some sustaining reason in so much quickly escaping.

Elisabeth now lives in a defunct corn cannery in another part of Maine. She is a fiction writer, she writes stories. Hers elaborate a wondrous and rigorous human ecology. I have always loved her writing, Turgenev, Woolf, Faulkner, Kawabata, Benjamin, which doesn’t necessarily mean she was born in the 19th century, though sometimes I think so. I turn to her writing—the record of where she is and what she is experiencing, the dynamic between living and sub- and supra-living things, in precisely those moments, though also as refracted through a wild and specific parallel incarnation of where she is or might imagine to be—in order to be more fully awake where I am in precisely these moments. This is not what we ask for, necessarily. This is what happens—and though we think about it, it remains rare, however total, then quickly dissolves. Elisabeth currently writes in what she describes as an eyrie, which I envision as the glassed-in bow of a ship. She also writes letters. I have a stack of letters I’ve received over the years; at least half of them are from Elisabeth. her most recent letter to me she typewrote on two separate days in January: the 13th and the 16th, postmarked on the 17th. The letter I was originally referring to, when I started to write this response to your question, Zach, was actually not a letter at all. I was mistaken. It was a phone call. After visiting Elisabeth, after my sister’s wedding, after leaving Montana, after a few months of being in Seattle, after I had moved into a tiny studio apartment, in which my mattress was wedged into my closet, Elisabeth and I had a phone conversation, in which she said, I SHOULD BE TELLING YOU ABOUT MAINE … and then the phone cut out, and I was left to imagine what she might have said about Maine.

The first time Elisabeth experienced the phenomenon of phosphorescence in nature was during low tide in the inlet below her cabin in Maine. All the seaweed was exposed. She walked down to the water and everywhere she stepped, the seaweed lit up.

Wherever anyone is or however far or whatever anyone might be doing wherever they are, I can feel their presence in moments like these as phosphorescence. My life might be born of these moments, maybe, but also the energy with which they are shared, which amounts to an extension of the moments themselves: attention, again, by which the mind might empathize into being in and with the presence of others. It begins with one sharing at what they are looking. Also, for a brief time, the cannery canned blueberries.