Archive for the ‘Paul Killebrew’ Category

Q&A: Paul Killebrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[. . . .]

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

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

What is your relationship to the sublime?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zach Savich & Hilary Plum on Paul Killebrew’s “Ethical Consciousness”

Zach Savich: Let me start personally. Remember when my dad died? I read Ethical Consciousness shortly after. One thing grief granted me was the advent of weeping as an aesthetic response–I mean weeping in a way that isn’t linked simply to grief. Why do you think Paul’s book made me cry?

Hilary Plum: Yes, I read this book in the weeks before, while pacing the floor of your parents’ living room. At that time everyone slept on different schedules, which is to say, your sister and I sometimes slept, but you and your mother and father didn’t. I can’t answer your question, but I know what you mean. For instance, the poem “To My Enemies,” which ends, “the scene where / the technology / of society’s disenchantment / startles at the sound / of dishes crashing / across the restaurant, / only to find itself / in the gaze / of racialized desire.” Those last lines have been in my head for months: it’s their motion, which I can’t explain and which keeps presenting itself to me as possible explanation for a dizzying range of phenomena.

At the time I tried to say something to you of sentences that suggest, that create, (that intone?), an emotion or quality of thought, even as one could not parse their syntax to find that emotion or thought within, or could not parse their syntax, properly, at all. Since I already knew something about Frost, you tried to explain to me John Ashbery. Tell me more about this? Or, another way to ask a different question (“only to find itself / in the gaze”), if emotion can rise like a ghost out of syntax (is this tone?), can an “ethical consciousness” do the same, and what should we call this?

ZS: I love you for suggesting that to “intone” can mean to evoke or incite tone (rather than corresponding to a particular tone, an intoning tone). When I finished crying, I thought, “People will read this book and think of Ashbery and Schuyler. But only as much as they always should.” Schuyler because of the short lines, at once tense and poised, exacting in their depiction, but also conjuring the complementary absence of a surrounding context from which the depiction was exacted, which one can feel as loss (“Two street lights / pulsed orange / flowers through / a dull fog”). Ashbery because of the attentive drift of syntax, ruminative, so epistemology spins from the casually authoritative musing of phrases, often around a general yet intimate “you.” Take a sentence like this: “Could you also / pass through entirely, or is that / one of those / axiomatic falsehoods / upon which so / little of existence / finds any footing and / that yet / persists?” The tender persisting reminds me of Ashbery, as does the creation of tone (is this what I was trying to say about Frost/Ashbery?) through sentence patterns that amount to half of meaning (“Could you x or is that y upon which z…”—a good Mad Lib!).

I suppose that, as a pattern of thought and thus of behavior (if only the behavior of language), this kind of syntax could suggest a form of “ethical consciousness,” not only in its meditative concern, but in its phrasing alone, a posture akin to the postures through which one is “ethical” (a judge’s reflective slouch, a protestor’s raised hand)? Let’s return to firmer ground. In this book, “ethical consciousness” also crops up overtly—through what we could call thought experiments into the nature of the self and its relationships with varied sorts of society. The virtuosic long poem at the end of the book, “Muted Flags,” has one of my favorite examples of this, when its narrator realizes that “it seemed likely” that people around the world happen to say some of the same words at the same time, which forms “an incidental choir” that also accrues into a kind of lovely, collective exquisite corpse. There’s an app that tracks this? Soon enough. If you were making other apps inspired by Ethical Consciousness, what would they do?

HP: You know very well that I have never seen an app. Or, in the words of Killebrew’s “Blind Preference”: “You / are like a ditch / feeding itself / to the lawn, / a regular guy / making his way / through the ocean. / States are built on / promises like you.” By you, I think I mean I. And this inability to distinguish ourselves from our interlocutors, to tell our speech from the incidental choir’s, is another chord that “Muted Flags” makes resound. I want to splice these thoughts together to make a proposition like this: it is the “tender” persistence of the I amid the looming absence of surrounding context—note here, now, the soft threat of loss—that allows or demands our ethical consciousness. Like the scene in “Muted Flags,” in which the speaker—an I whose identity permutes, or loses and finds itself while still speaking, throughout the poem—is mugged and says of his mugger:

I must have
looked at him
so strangely,
not, as he might
have expected, shocked
or frightened, but
as if I’d
just walked out of 
a dark theater
into the daylight,
and he were
soliciting strangers
for bit parts
in the inevitable

Here even the theater won’t stay put; we can’t say when we are and aren’t in it. The speaker has twenty bucks and splits it with the mugger, who waits for him faithfully when he goes to make change. And so you and I float on, and later in the poem, in a leap that gives me a joy I also cannot explain, the speaker abruptly addresses “your recently successful / run for Congress. / Or, more precisely, your sudden disappearance / as a recognizable self / during the campaign.” This Ashbery-ish attentive syntactical drift, which in Killebrew becomes a breeziness of understated intelligence—aren’t we all regular guys? is this not the ocean?—is a means continually to implicate everyone on any side of this speech. We’re caught, unsure if we’re accuser or accused. So that lines like “States are built on / promises like you” both affirm and condemn us. Maybe another way to say this is that I become momentarily aware of the posture of ethics as posture: as we raise a hand, prosecutorial, righteousness blooms then fades and speech tumbles on: “All / we have seen / is fifteen feet / of road, and yet, / here we are, / the Treaty of Versailles.” If there could be an app this self-aware, one of these days in some poem Killebrew will simultaneously design, critique, and dissolve it, as he does with other conceptual art projects others would be thrilled just to dream up (e.g., the excerpt from his new “Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known,” just published on Thermos). But given all this, what makes Ethical Consciousness so funny?

ZS: Probably the same quality that has caused me, in the year I have known Paul outside of admiring his books, to present him with the following gifts: a set of Alf trading cards, a pair of spy glasses (with mirrors to let you see behind you), a bottle of bourbon chosen for the rad eagle on it. In the book, there are several kinds of humor, many of them played straight (that is, no pause for a laugh track):

a) There’s the humor that emerges from the kind of intricately whimsical concepts you mention. In “Experiment,” for example, the speaker of the poem—let’s call him Paul Killebrew—tries to pass through a wall  by tuning “the particles / in my body / to align / with the empty / spaces between / the particles / of the wall.” This is stoner science presented soberly, as though any such experiment will, even in failing, reveal something about the nature of the world, and so it does. 

b) There’s the humor of one-liners, often tinged with pseudo-profundity, foregrounding not just the punchline but the point of view of one who takes the joke seriously. Like the start of the first poem in the book: “My disease, if I / have one, is life / in its entirety.” Which is both funny and not at all. Or the start of “Deliveries,” in which a few one-liners stack up: “Does the vacuum cleaner / mind / that it’s in the lake? / What am I today, the news?”

c) There’s the humor of discombobulation. Which can come from gentle blips in expected or conventional usage (“The dominant / palette was / 1961”; “Now everyone has his eye”) or from larger deviations (the end of “Actually Present,” e.g., which goes “Something / something something, something / something something”). In that poem, and others, this perspective can turn the represented world into geometrical configurations that recall the unfinished landscapes at the edges of video games; thought becomes similarly configured, programmatic and disoriented (“but I wanted to rearrange thin bars of thought / into a ladder-like system of total devotion”; “I lived mostly as a walk / through frozen iterations of a neighborhood”). Still attentive, but trippily so. So that “flecks of consciousness / bending along / contours of the soul” reveal “never more surface, / just more tension / as the surface / spreads.” That isn’t funny, exactly. But it tilts your head like a joke might be in the works. But then the set-up continues past the point of any bada bing… 

One could go on. Another type—or related aspect—of humor in the book is a kind of exuberant glee that is present in even moments of graver reflection (“Just simmer down, silverware,” begins “Teach Me to Box”). I think this glee is similar to the fabulous painting by David Rathman on the book’s front and back covers. It’s worth mentioning that while you and I were living in a place in which we were lonely, I often enjoyed watching this video of a Neil Young performance. My theory was that everyone we knew and missed had a corresponding avatar in the crowd shots, so watching the video was a way to hang out with them. This cover is a lot like that, and perhaps humor in the book is, too, offering a way of looking that reorients things, and then extends beyond comedy. Or emerges from a kind of—should I call it sadness?—emotional need that makes the concepts, the one-liners, the discombobulations feel necessary.

HP: They do feel necessary, and beyond comedy, so that I laugh when I’m reading but not when I’m remembering. Because—and this too is a quality these poems’ share with the best comedy—there is a way (tilt your head and you’ll see it) that these poems are indictments and the charges serious. I don’t mean that this is their sole or lasting function. But it is a function: gleefully, amiably enough, we indict and are indicted by ourselves. But who’s we, who is in these poems? I agree with you and Neil that it may be everybody. I wish I could say how Killebrew does this, how diverse speech acts, welcomed into this intimate, tricksy voice, become diverse people, people who then encounter each other in a society as troubling as the one we live in. What I mean is something like: “the implacable now / takes me back inside / the government compound, enveloped / by its pressed brown gravel and humorless / architecture, an architecture that anticipates me / like a fact anticipates being buried.” Or that I too am waiting “for someone to stand up and insist that I, / for all my faults, am really just a compendium, / not blameless, exactly, but also not worth calculating, / past the decimal” (from “For David Park”). 

Really all I’m saying is that I’ve been living in these poems since last winter when I first read them, and I think you’re in there too. And I want to live in his new work, which—we’re in luck—Thermos published yesterday. Meet me there?

Paul Killebrew: from Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known

We’re pleased to welcome Paul Killebrew back to New Orleans this week, as part of the PXP 2013 Symposium at Tulane University, and to begin a 3-day mini-feature of his work here at THERMOS. Paul’s second book with Canarium, Ethical Consciousness, came out earlier this year. It’s an astonishing book, my favorite of the year, anchored by the lengthy narrative poem “Muted Flags.” This new poem, the first chapter of an even lengthier narrative poem of the same name, carries on the work of the longer poems in Ethical Consciousness. We hope you’ll enjoy it, and come to see Paul read later in the week, along with fellow Canarium poet Robert Fernandez, and many others. — AS

from Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known

The incomplete mosaic into which I dazzlingly fit
began to come into view 
with the opening of a pair of automatic doors at Walmart in 2011, 
where I saw 
through a crisscross of ambling customers 
and disheveled intra-aisle displays, 
through a cornea-scouring rant of A/C,
through what Cornel West would later call 
my “egocentric predicament,” 
a middle-aged African American woman 
standing in the returns line at the customer service desk 
idly holding one of those awful 
cardboard-backed, clear-plastic-fronted packages 
that cheap toys and seemingly everything else comes in, 
in this case a pair of toy handcuffs, 
a toy sheriff’s badge, and a toy gun. 
I headed straight for her, 
both because I was intrigued to hear 
what drove her to this particular precipice–
if the Walmart returns line formed along the ledge of a tall building, 
would anyone make it to the counter?–
and because I was returning something myself, 
in my case a cheapo rice cooker 
that had no facility with the short-grained brown rice 
on which I’d become 
totally dependent. 
It had gotten to the point 
that I consumed embarrassing amounts of each day 
in the preparation of this rice, which formed 
the bedrock of every meal at the time, breakfast included. 
And because the rice is so much better freshly cooked than reheated, 
I insisted on only ever making enough rice for one meal at a time. 
Each batch takes–from pre-soaking to letting the cooked rice stand off the heat–
an hour and a half. I’m also a particularly forgetful person;
the smell of scorched rice is hardly unknown
to even the least observant of my kitchen towels.
I should mention that I’m a playwright, 
and I actually own my own performance space, 
though it’s really just the ground floor of my house,
and since for money I do freelance graphic design work from home,
I basically “live over the store” as Barack Obama often says, 
and it’s easy for me to slide into such time-swallowing intricacies 
as the perpetual making of temperamental rice. 
The endless rice-making had actually inspired my last piece, 
in which the curtain opens on the announcement by two white actors,
a man and a woman, who play a couple,
to five other white actors, three women and two men,
who play their friends, in a modest living room 
(my own, actually, in the only staging so far,
and “modest” is probably a bit hyperbolic)
that they are soon to be married. The five friends
are overcome with excitement–they shriek
and laugh and text other friends– 
when the groom gets a text message
that his father has fallen seriously ill, and he must
take the first available flight back home to Atlanta.
After a tense discussion over whether his fiancé
should go with him–she has never
met his family–the bride decides to stay, 
preferring to make her introductions during a less
trying time. The groom leaves, 
and the six remaining onstage 
are doused in a silence 
from which bright flickers suddenly appear–ringtones 
picked in more whimsical times 
that now seem in blanchingly poor taste. 
A few unmistakeable notes 
from “Country Grammar” and “In Da Club”
announce calls from friends for whom the friends 
of the bride and groom had just left excited voicemails.
After several of these calls, 
all of which the friends send straight to their own voicemails, 
yet another call comes in 
with an eerily normal ringtone,
and the actor, identified in the script
as Female Friend #1, 
says it’s her boss and she has to answer. 
FF1 tentatively does so 
and then says a series of yeses, 
each growing more assured than the last. 
She hangs up, looks around at her friends, 
and, in a dumbfounded voice, 
tells everyone that she has just been made 
the CFO of her company, 
a job she had not even applied for 
but that involves a substantial raise. 
FF1’s friends nervously congratulate her
with one eye on the distressed bride, 
who breaks the tension by walking over to FF1 
and giving her a long and gracious hug, 
which is interrupted by a loud crash offstage. 
Everyone runs to the window of the living room and 
sees that there has been a car accident outside–
a cement truck has tipped over, 
apparently trying to avoid some children
who biked unexpectedly into its path, 
and cement is now spilling out 
and covering the neighbor’s front yard, 
which causes one of the male friends to laugh uproariously 
because, the audience learns, 
this is his house, and he knows his neighbor 
to be especially tedious about lawn care.
The character, who is identified in the script as Male Friend #1,
explains that he was out walking his dog just a few days before
when his neighbor came running and screaming out of his house, 
wielding, improbably, a kitchen sponge.
MF1’s dog had urinated in the neighbor’s yard, 
and the neighbor wanted MF1 to sop it up. 
MF1 goes on to explain, with growing agitation, 
that he had done so,
but that when he tried to hand the sponge back to his neighbor, 
the man said, “Keep the change,” and walked off laughing. 
I should say at this point
that the actor I cast as MF1 
is the spitting image of the young Laura Dern, 
long blond hair and face, 
but with a frat boy’s voice and bearing.
MF1 looks ruefully out the window at the cement,
his friends a little spooked by his show of emotion,
when he suddenly screams out “Rachel!” 
and runs out the door. MF2 says, “His dog!” 
as the friends and the bride rush over to the window. 
The bride says, “Oh god, she ran straight into the cement!”
Then, through the highly contrived narration of the friends, 
the audience learns that Rachel
will not respond to MF1’s calls 
but instead just wallows there, 
a pig in rapidly hardening shit,
until MF1 finally wades in and rescues her.
MF1 then runs back onstage with Rachel in his arms,
both covered with drying cement, 
and says, “I’ll be in the bathroom.” 
While he’s gone, MF2 changes the subject entirely 
by telling the bride and the remaining friends
that he is considering relocating his artisanal stationery business 
to Montana, apparently to take advantage 
of certain unusual but quite favorable tax treatments 
for paper products in the Big Sky State. 
This prompts a fraught discussion among the friends
about whether moving your entire business to avoid taxes 
is the morally right thing to do,
a discussion that ends abruptly when the stationery mogul
blusteringly recites a passage from Judge Learned Hand:
“Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes
shall be as low as possible; he is not bound
to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury.
There is not even a patriotic duty 
to increase one’s taxes. Over and over again 
the Courts have said that there is nothing sinister 
in so arranging affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. 
Everyone does it, rich and poor alike 
and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty 
to pay more than the law demands.” 
Just as MF2 finishes his pretentious little show–
not at all too soon for his friends– 
MF1 returns to the room dogless, shirtless, and clean 
and asks if anyone would give him a cigarette. 
But you just quit smoking, his friends say, 
to which MF1 casually retorts
that he picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue. 
The Airplane reference sends a light titter through the room, 
and the bride, with a curious look on her face,
pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her purse
and hands one to MF1. 
He grabs a book of matches off the mantle, 
lights the cigarette, 
and looks around for a place to throw away the match,
realizing (out loud) that when he quit smoking, 
he threw out all his ashtrays. 
As he walks offstage he tells everyone 
he’s going to the kitchen to get something to ash into, 
and he returns a second later with an empty glass tumbler.
He says, “So where were we,” 
and in the awkward silence that follows 
his eyes fall on the bride,
and he blushes. Just then a billow of smoke
appears behind MF1 from the direction of the kitchen, 
and the bride yells out, “FIRE!” 
MF1 yells, “The match! 
I just threw it in the recycling with all the newspapers! 
I’m so stupid! Someone call 911!” 
FFs 1 through 3
peck frantically at their cell phones 
and report the fire so nearly in sync 
that they become incredibly confused, 
one trying to report the address 
while another tries to report the number she’s calling from
and the third inexplicably counts backwards from six.
Sirens are soon heard offstage 
as whirling red lights appear through the windows. 
Dozens of firefighters come onstage 
and are soon annoyed
because while several fires have been reported at this address,
there appears to be only one small kitchen fire. 
I won’t bore you with any more of this; 
the point is that the plot keeps accumulating 
for another couple of hours–
one of the firefighters faints from the sight of his own blood
after receiving a nasty papercut 
while helping MF1 clean out his unburnt recycling; 
FF1 learns that she has come into a substantial inheritance, 
which somehow triggers a memory, long suppressed,
of childhood abuse; 
a huge tornado passes less than half a mile from the house; 
the secret, smoldering romance between MF1 and the bride
comes obscenely into view 
just as the groom returns unannounced and quite unexpectedly 
from an airport that had canceled all flights due to the tornado; 
and so on. 
There’s no real effort to create “rising action” or a climax, 
and in fact the play ends
just as FF2 accidentally slices off the end of her thumb. 
Throughout the play 
there are two male African American teenage actors
at the back of the stage, 
barely visible behind the furniture 
and not lit in any deliberate way. 
They make box after box
of Uncle Ben’s Instant Rice, 
a cup at a time,
on a single-burner hot plate, 
throwing each finished batch onto to the stage 
as soon as it’s done. 
The directions for making Uncle Ben’s 
call for one cup of water
for each cup of uncooked rice, 
plus a tablespoon of butter or oil. 
Combine all ingredients and bring to a roiling boil. 
Cover the pan, remove it from heat, 
and let it stand for 5 to 7 minutes. 
Fluff with a fork and serve
or, in this case, dump it on the ground.
The actors started each night with ten 
unopened, 14-ounce boxes of Uncle Ben’s, 
two new gallons of spring water, 
and an unopened package of a pound of butter. 
Each batch takes between 10 and 12 minutes, 
and the performance usually ran
about two and a half hours, 
so they made about fifteen batches of rice per night, 
or 30 cups of cooked rice. 
There was no line of sight
from anywhere in the audience 
to the pile of rice on the stage, 
but you could smell it.
The white actors give no indication 
that they see the black actors 
throughout the performance, 
and the black actors say nothing
to the white actors or to each other.
They simply help one another 
make the appropriate measurements 
and otherwise stand there looking at the saucepan. 
The only thing even approaching tension in their actions, 
which I felt sure no one would notice, 
is that they cook the rice in a saucepan 
coated with nonstick teflon
and then fluff each batch with a metal fork.
I called the play Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known,
after the title of a book I once found 
on the bookshelves of a childhood friend.
I took particular notice of this book 
because my friend’s father, a Civil War buff,
was listed as its author, 
and I didn’t know he was a writer. 
I pulled the book off the shelf and flipped through it, 
finding a book of blank pages. 
Negro Yachtsmen–the play–owed a substantial debt
to Young Jean Lee’s play The Shipment, 
or really its second half. 
A young black man is having a party
for friends and co-workers, all of whom are also black.
The party grows increasingly neurotic 
as accusations are flung and alliances revealed. 
Like all of Lee’s plays
the whole thing is quite hilarious, 
that is, until the last two lines of the play, 
in which the audience learns 
that the characters aren’t actually black.
It’s not as if the actors are wearing makeup
like in that old Eddie Murphy skit from Saturday Night Live, 
“White Like Me”. It’s just that the race of the characters
hasn’t been made explicit in the dialogue
until those last two lines,
and when it is, the actual blackness of the actors
takes on the same deafening muteness 
that I tried to capture through Negro Yachtsmen’s rice-makers, 
though without Lee’s brilliant trompe l’oeil effect. 
The program for Negro Yatchsmen had this passage 
from Matthew 25:35 on the cover: 
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, 
I was thirsty and you gave me drink, 
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
This epigraph, my friend Tiffany explained to me, 
gave away too much. 
Tiffany, who is an artist and professor of internet sculpture 
at the University of Alabama,
said that when liberal white artists “deal” with race–
and the verb for what they do
usually falls between quotation marks–
it’s a gambit calculated to draw the eye
of the redeeming Christ. 
Tiffany said she understood
what I was trying to do, 
to enact the failure of integration
between white privilege in the form of endless plot 
and the plotless inertia of black poverty, 
to show them as characters living right alongside one another 
and yet never commingling.
Tiffany said she respected those intentions, 
but nevertheless the true object of this kind of work 
is personal salvation, and the terms of the artwork 
are correspondingly inward.
The actual black people I portrayed 
were purely tangential to my purposes. 
Were not the black teenagers
in Negro Yachtsmen totally silent?
Wasn’t their poverty strikingly free of pathology?
Even within the racial logic of the play,
wasn’t black struggle just a foil for white privilege, 
an expression of quiet nobility 
to make the yammering of the white people 
seem not merely ridiculous, but contemptible?
“Maybe another way of putting it,” Tiffany said,
“and I don’t mean to be too cute about it, Christopher,
but aren’t the teenagers just a residue
of the white characters’ lives, 
bits of teflon scraped into piles of white rice?”
Tiffany had noticed the metal fork. 
I told her I was more than a little annoyed
that she was voicing these criticisms only after the fact, 
even though she’d read drafts of the script
and saw the play in workshop a year before.
Tiffany said it had taken her some time
to identify her discomfort, and anyway 
what did it matter? “If you’re saying
you would have rewritten the play
had I told you all of this, 
doesn’t that prove my point? 
Why do you need my blessing?” 
She made the sign of the cross
and said, “I absolve you. Dominus vobiscum.”
I had closed my eyes, 
and I sat silently for about a minute, 
imagining that my forehead had shaped itself
into a book that I could open 
only by relaxing each muscle in my face. 
I said, “It’s exhausting. 
Why all this anticipatory maneuvering? 
Why am I trying to think 
of every avenue of criticism 
and building it into the work myself? 
It’s like chess.
But–and I apologize if this just shows my
profound lack of imagination–what
are the alternatives?” Tiffany said,
“What if you have none? 
What if you have reached the upper limit 
of white racial sensibility
because going any further
would require making concessions
that a white person like you 
is simply not prepared to make? 
Look at this play.
Your white characters are sinners,
and your black characters are saints.
On the surface that’s certainly admirable,
but what’s impossible for you, 
because of your racial guilt,
is to portray the sins of black people. 
To do so, you fear, 
would expose your racism.
And it surely would.”