Posts Tagged ‘Canarium’

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.”

Robert Fernandez: Pearls Before Swine

This series of plates from Robert Fernandez’s Pearls Before Swine concludes this rich feature of his work. We’re extremely excited to be able to present this work in particular to you. Please see a note from Robert underneath the plates, giving some information about the project. You can see a different set of plates over at The Volta. — AS

from Pearls Before Swine

Album Zutique / Image from: Vamp

Album Zutique / Image from: Vamp

Blood of a Young Girl Streaks the Altar / Text: Aeschylus, from Agamemnon;  Image: Michael Spinks, from Spinks vs. Tyson

Blood of a Young Girl Streaks the Altar / Text: Aeschylus, from Agamemnon; Image: Michael Spinks, from Spinks vs. Tyson

Huge Risks / Text: Jean-Luc Godard; Image: The Baron's feet, from Dune

Huge Risks / Text: Jean-Luc Godard; Image: The Baron’s feet, from Dune

Clots Will Mass / Aeschylus, from Agamemnon; Image: Red tide

Clots Will Mass / Aeschylus, from Agamemnon; Image: Red tide

Merle in Switzerland / Image: Rivi's eyes, from Cocaine Cowboys

Merle in Switzerland / Image: Rivi’s eyes, from Cocaine Cowboys

Pretty Boys Eating Red Meat / Image: Sylvia Plath

Pretty Boys Eating Red Meat / Image: Sylvia Plath


A Note on Pearls Before Swine

The works presented here are excerpted from my third book, a sequence of sixty-five plates titled Pearls Before Swine. My calling them plates is a nod to Rimbaud, whose Illuminations, or “painted plates,” gestures toward poetry’s relationship to photography. Verlaine dated the composition of the Illuminations between 1873 and 1875, which means that when Rimbaud was thinking “painted plates,” he was thinking of the sometimes painted paper prints and glass plates of the wet plate collodion process, a tricky sequence of maneuvers in which glass plates are coated with collodion mixture, set in silver nitrate, exposed while still wet (able to take an exposure only while still wet), and immediately developed.

Rimbaud’s Illuminations have a precariousness as well as a lushness and luminosity—they course with life and imagination—that has always made his choice of the descriptor “painted plates” feel appropriate. One might also say that there is, in the wet collodion process, a fusion of technique and magic, vision and timing, that corresponds to the poet’s own venture of skill, grace, and luck: for those early photographers, exposure times were stretches of heightened, volatile time—that is, alchemical (chemical) time as well as time highlighted as flux and transformation, material and inscription, ruin and distortion threatening at every turn.

I call these “plates” in the spirit of the Illuminations’ precarity, vibrance, and stickiness, but also because I plan to produce them as acrylic plates. The sequence is important. I would ask that one start at the beginning and work his or her way through to the end. The images have a syntax—of color, sound, figure, theme—which has a cumulative effect, though individual images are nevertheless intended to stand on their own.

The plates are photographs of photographs overlaid with appropriated and original colored text. I chose to leave them blurry, broken, and grainy because I wanted them to be at once intimate and sublime, trashy and lyrical. Titles and occasional notes appear at the end of the sequence. I had in mind the fanzines of Harmony Korine, the illuminated books of William Blake, Tumblr, Cy Twombly and Jean-Michelle Basquiat, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, Lana Del Rey and Frank Ocean, Mike Tyson, Luis Gispert, Antigone, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and Martin Heidegger.

Robert Fernandez

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.

Alex Walton on Robert Fernandez

To kick off the second week of our feature of Robert Fernandez’s poetry, we’ve asked friend-of-THERMOS Alex Walton to write about Pink Reef. — AS

A Note on Pink Reef

Usually I’m thinking about this part of the Marvell quote: “Meanwhile the Mind, from pleasure less, / Withdraws into its happiness […] Annihilating all that’s made / To a green Thought in a green Shade.” But in the ellipsis, between “happiness” and “Annihilating,”

                    The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
                    Does streight its own resemblance find;
                    Yet it creates, transcending these,
                    Far other Worlds, and other Seas;

— which a perhaps worthless gloss once told me Marvell references a “then-current doctrine” of pseudozoology in which each land-animal was supposed an aquatic complement: horses and seahorses, mermaids, mermen, and people. (Sir Thomas Browne frowned on this theory in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica. He did not stamp it out.) Charming and bizarre theory, I remembered it this weekend, thinking over Pink Reef, the second book of poems from Robert Fernandez– what quality does the ocean have that makes us look for our resemblance there– not our exact semblance, not saltwater Narcissi, but in uncanny form, the seahorse looking the horse in the mouth. We have a persistent sense of an obscure submarine self-sufficiency, a completeness unto itself, which must, if complete, contain some reprised versions of our own lives, intelligences, constructions. And threatening as it mirrors: “Few eyes have escaped the picture of mermaids.” (–Tho. Browne again.) When at low tide that wettest trope of sublimity retreats, we are confronted by a spitting, crawling, particoloured yard of hissing jellies and festery barnacles, Ernst Haeckel’s sweet-shop, you know it, one is uncomfortable among these forms of life which (animal or vegetable? or mineral? industrial trash washed back up?) if they reprise or repeat our life, may do so satirically; difficult to tell. Pink Reef (whose pink is what – human? blood in the water? coral encrustation?) has that uncanniness and that pulsing, hissing life to it; the encounter of “streight its own resemblance find” just as it occurs between the mind, in its withdrawn happiness, and the annihilating thought. “How strange to be called F-e-r-n-a-n-d-e-z.”

A “candied light of a distinct South Beach nihilism” (Fernandez, ex-Floridian, in an interview) showing through the title, through dolphins variously quartered or apostrophized, does not imply any ruminating on this or any other attitude, landscape, system. Not ruminating anything: active with coral’s living, distributed vigor from the smallest scale upward; a restlessness through, not with, poetry; the questing-in-place through which spirit might appear, not as an apparition before but as the appropriator of ourselves and our material reality, together, in an objectively audible coach. (Conch?) Beyond this self-requirement to be ceaselessly in motion, to posses by music whatever material is at hand (and regard everything possible as material), it gives no proscription as to what may occasion, or carry, poetry. Forms expedited: flat-rate, compact, signature confirmation; not book- or bulk-rate. To be free from feeling that poems ought conform to their own idea of lyric, or virtuosity– is virtuosity; for these poems to attend to and certify their individual rhythms goes far further into poetry than any hovering attempt to subvert or interrogate Poetry.

                    I have compared thee, O my love,
                    to a smear of gold teeth in Pharaoh’s chariots

in one place,

                    & clop, clip-i-
                    ty clop

in another. I would like to mention the Polyhedron as a figure here, “Polyhedron” being the title of the first poem in Fernandez’ first book, We Are Pharaoh: “Intending to begin at the billowing page,” beginning instead at interlocking angles, joined surfaces, “Think of the bardo as 2,700 intersecting tiles”; in other words think of an intermediate state, the space between you and anything, as if states themselves were something angular, irregular, and investigable as Durer’s solid. The sections of “Polyhedron,” the poems in Pink Reef, fit that way: shared edges (returned images and objects: blood, roe, discs, violets, many more), and heavy repetition inside individual poems. Across one face of the solid flashes clear imagery; its opposite side quotes a joke; the adjoining side detourns it; one’s metaphor becomes another’s ground; those turned part way away, grow obtuse and thin in perspective, but stay in sight. “Imagines itself a Cadillac- / mouthed cupid” — which is fantastical, impossible, and then, when the grille becomes a grill— an image of intense complexity and vivacity. What returns does so not as gratuitous hieropanting [sic] but as the seams and edges of that solidity we feel or desire to feel in reality. There is, throughout, an obstinate insistence on a material reality of such density that each thing slides out from another like rows of overlapping scales, as if the fact of overcrowding were the source of the metaphoric faculty. But the testament of that reality is not in trying to apply fixative to a single transcendent image; it is, rather, in the sound one makes of it. As in Zukofsky when Zukofsky says:

                    One can go further, try to dissect capillaries or intelligent nerves– and speak of the image
                    felt as duration or perhaps of the image as the existence of the shape and movement of the
                    poetic object. The poet’s image is not dissociable from the movement or the cadenced
                    shape of the poem.

That “cadenced shape,” I mean, is not only how and where we encounter ourselves (our voices), but how we can be made to feel the entrenchment of things in themselves. Not unrelatedly, Pink Reef’s alternations between the flesh as hunks of meat under a dicey MRI and at the flesh as intricate, delicate systems of separate (nervous, skeletal, circulatory) self-life-support clarify that the view that seems more gruesome is in fact less terrifying, in the sense that a true vision of the working circulatory systems is far more unsettling than the sight of spilled blood.

Rimbaud, his verve, fired pupils, drunken boat knocking between everything that could be in language as language, is a precedent spirit, and when Robert quotes (not, I should say, without reservation) his statement that the poet might, for instance, “die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things [n.b. “charging through” not: “seeking to name” -AW]: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!” it is clear that the show of fragility and the show of intensity are unavoidably one; one is already a bull, already in the china shop. Poetry is the ensuing. And the china, Rimbaud’s opulence, is in Fernandez’s poems compacted and recapitalized by available, mythic brands: “Cartier chariots strung with pearls”; “ecstasy’s Versace”; Chanel; Jeff Koons; “a pearl farrari / [approximating] the angel of history.” It makes sense: all that toil and cash to pack a whole atmosphere into the brand-name each season; which name, redeployed in poetry, can spread perfume with concision.


                    one who flatters a lyre
                    clips the spine’s fused discs,
                    spreads the mind’s bloodied butter
                    on flat, brittle, cold dry toast

But wait:

                    just the smiles
                    (just the smiles)
                    just the smiles

Here and elsewhere, whether exactly echoing or wholly departing, each line responds to the line before with as much attention as the mind might bring; but it is the ear attending. This may sound obvious. It is a rarity in poetry. Pink Reef is a pleasure: a record of a hypnotic attention, not hypnotized, that makes things dream awake. “Look in thy ear and write!” (Zukofsky-Pound-Sidney). If the variety of, if the extent of, a fantastic imagination is coextensive with the variety we see in reality, it endures for us with that reality: much in the way it is the Ocean’s magnitude, more than the incidental existence in it of seahorses, lions, and other such complements, that seem to make it promise a total complement of the terrestrial. That alternately primordial and avant-lapsarian “soup is / all the good stuff / mixed in.”

THERMOS 6: Robert Fernandez

We close the first week of our Robert Fernandez feature today with this sequence of poems from our sixth issue. Written while Robert and we were in graduate school together, the poems are now nearly a decade old — and while Robert’s work has changed significantly in that time, these still hold surprises in them. What astonished us ten years ago astonished us when we took them three years ago, and does so again today. Our feature will continue all of next week, beginning Monday with some writing about Robert’s work done by Alex Walton. — AS

Child of the World


Suits, plural with hive-dope

wasps skin woundlets to shone-

blank: oval hemmed.
Sun: ping of graphite

in the stadium of the blind spot,
dithyramb of the virtual theatre.

Blood finds a fellowship
in freshwater / euthanizes

will / undressed and lain:
girded by the river’s shadow.


By holes we mean graphemes,
        cords of silence: the after (synesthet) of

verb: Lyrælis.

Augustine: allflesh in luster pockets,
    Thanatos of the gallery fugue.

            Slavish glottal            leash harried,
                your name of weather passing into

ibis nets: the herringbone stitch of the horizon.
    Thirty is twelve,     so visit us     sfumato.

serviteur closing his hands.


Atrophic languor slumps to June,
rots vortice hips in cherry groves

of clicking sandals

Red cell of cordite powder
in which we seduce power

and conjure up the tree


Week by week
I find my shape–

if the wound is cold
fire that smells like silk

rock of estuary,
jetty of perception

noon of
ordinary shapes,

but never Sunday
in a white poker dress

never on, like female
magistrating, never

or fuck-spot,

white prune or spoke,
brachycatalectic fascination,

judicious matter
or gender vine–

in time, we die because
the bull’s hooves are white


broad robe is a powdered
heat             a cup bearer

the feet have swollen shut

chiasmus alters the face,
      tongue of aspic snow

A book of hours
tells you its maiden name


Zombie: white face, red hair
                Arthurian lacquer

The sun undoes its belt:

do not forget the threat level
or to peck into the anus of the ruby


Promiscuous millet of the rain:
it never stops. There are only flowers.

They are each named Mary.

I tend the wound, clear the air.
The sun a federal prisoner in Miami, beside Noriega.


Homelessness is our liberation proposal,
the true quantitative revolutionary art.

Diamonds splinter but cannot flower.
The splinters carry the entire sky

and move collectively like airy brussle stalks.
I will be thirty-one when the blade changes to male/

All parentheticals, eternal.


The way the thunder trapped me:

grey glade,

cormorant like an oiled Hades
and heron traversing the scrim:

scissor buds,
SWAT roses:

forgive me, spine like
red jade I’ve carved

a dolphin across your


In our own hands,

in our own art,
I become other

white alligators


Clamor: charmed,

constellated tree.

Traylor’s pig with corkscrew tail:

the bladder a lantern

swaying over Hialeah.

Hatred courses through the bardo–

charm splits its lamp lights:

wet tattoos on the arms of Adolfina.



blade that sends out spokes,
mandala in a sun-pocket,

thorny guitar,
mellific hive of a body.

I will not have had a drink.

The blank totem poem will have had too many.


Fear unwraps its calves. They
are banana leaves: sweet millet.

free canary muscle soup
                                    on Sundays

at the shelter. We burn coal.
The air is rich with peace.

I have invented a homeless body.

It is called Bromine, child of the rocks,
hardness of flowering mathematical life.

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

Robert Fernandez: Edens

We’re pleased today to present new poetry by Robert Fernandez. “Edens” is from his third book, Crowns. We’ll continue our feature the next two days with some editorial writing and an older poem from THERMOS 6, then on into next week. Check back! — AS


Let me live a long life
Among clothes lines and bats’ grasp,
Fleshy twig grip,
Or kites, how I love
Their—too false to say—
Their dance with nothing;
How I love, rather, their clarity
That falls, skin that dissolves.

Every image of transcendence
Comes in a white marble block
Within which a bat is fixed
Like Satan himself
At the bottom of Dis.

And my three bearded heads
Garble dead cacti,
Wrinkled worm and caramel
Wrapped in foil.

Hold. Begin again
Where your face
Is a shield.

There, you are like kites.
But it’s false to say
We are flat and fleet—;
We are, rather, red steaks
Falling into a pan
Under raw moonlight,
Whitest of moonlight
Behind which the void

Still. We are
The ark’s reeling tower.
And how I love the ancient sky,
Purple, god-soaked, of faceted
Silver and phosphorus white.

Nothing’s the pit
You expel from your stomach.
And the dia-
              mond, fleshy
Only in its negation
Of all flesh,
Slips from your mouth
Into the pan.

Speak. Eden,
Your rain
Is cut wrong—
The giraffes
Bend sideways for their meals
Of leaves and flowers;
The baboons
Shuttle their skulls
On their backs.

And the day is trees
wind smoke soil
grass rock shit
sickness death
animals animals

The day prints our eyes;
The press of type
Falls into the flesh;
Our eyes are
Tired of reading;
They are scarred.

Is a scar too,
A laughing slit of mouth
Lined with black, shining fruit.

The baboons stretch their jaws and sleep.

The rivers travel until they do not.

The insects grip, multiply, and descend.

We are fortunate if we find
Some measure,
Because every day I see
A god bathing in the river,
Blood streaming from its mouth.

Let us
Split open
Our stomachs
With the unicorn’s

Let us
Spill warm
Platefulls of guts,
Pinkish things
Picked at.

Magisterial vultures,
Wings the size of children,
Extend themselves
Over pink plates.

O gods. Fall.
Fall still. Remember us.

That noon, highest point—
But a fork of little bone
Breaks from the dancer’s throat.

Still I love the beauty of these serpent colors.
And I love the dancers
With their naked feet.

And I love
The dancers
Who love the light,
Who unfold the light into the light,
Who bring the light to itself in witness.