Here Comes Everybody
I was the last poet to be included on Lance Phillips' great site, Here Comes Everybody. Here are my answers to his questions, the same questions he asked everyone. I've dropped the bio. The photo is by Atesh Sonneborn and/or Patrizia Pallaro.
1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?
“Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.”
“Life is but a dream” was my first lesson in Platonism, age six. I didn’t read modern poetry until I was a senior in college. Then I admired “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” even though it took me years to understand it, and “The Connoisseur of Chaos.”
2. What is something / someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers / colleagues? Why do you read it / them?
I used to love reading the Lake Michigan fishing report in the Chicago Sun-Times. Its terseness, mystery science (use spoons in high-running water), compression, and exactness were better than even the sports pages, the other section where poetry is occasionally to be found (“can of corn,” “frozen rope”).
3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?
Philosophy is of interest—and perhaps truer--when it is poetic. Deleuze’s The Fold, for instance. Much good poetry has philosophical implications, as in the line of Symborska: “Where is a written deer running through a written forest?” Because it runs the corridor from the actual to the ultimate, poetry is closer to philosophy than it is to fiction. Heidegger: “There lies hidden in nature a rift-design, a measure and a boundary and, tied to it, a capacity for bringing forth—that is, art.” Poetry and philosophy are about getting snagged in the rift and enjoying it.
4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?
Vallejo, Neruda, Sabines, Lorca, Pessoa, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade; Celan, Rilke, Grass, and Hölderlin; Mackey, Mullen, Baraka, and Césaire; Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Stein, Arp, Mayakovsky, Kharms, Simic; Basho, Li Po, Tu Fu, Shiki; Dang Ding Hung, Hoàng Hung, Nhat Le, and the ancient Vietnamese poet Nguyen Trai, whose work I’m translating with Nguyen Do.
5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?
I read a lot of poetry, but it often inspires me to start writing instead. I tend to enjoy poems that are about poetry or rather how meaning is constructed: Ashbery, Stevens, Lauterbach, Berssenbrugge, and Welish—the “abstract lyric.” Wallace Stevens’ “The Man on the Dump” is such a poem: “Where is it one first heard of the truth? The the.” Clark Coolidge: “Writing is a prayer for always it starts at the portal lockless to me at last leads to the mystery of everything that has always been written.”
6. What is something which your peers / colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?
Except in brief bits, I have never read Proust, likewise my three-volume edition of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I know I’m supposed to like them, but I wear out after a few paragraphs.
7. How would you explain what a poem is to a seven year old?
(A) It’s the making, in language, of a fine mess.
(B) It’s what you say into the telephone when no one is listening on the other end.
(C) It is a poem if, when they hear it, they will cut themselves shaving (A. E. Housman).
8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?
I wish there were more of an official role for poetry, like the babalawo (priests) of West Africa, or the healing services rendered by María Sabina. In Ifa divination, the conjurer judges from the tossing of cowrie shells—how many up, down—which of the Ifa canon of 256 poems to recite to the supplicant. Healing is based on the supplicant’s own interpretation of the poem. It’s less expensive than psychoanalysis, and the poet-priest gets paid for his services.
Poets who assume the Role are at risk of charlatanism. But I admired the poems of Allen Ginsberg, who played the priest with a disarming wink and Buddhist humor. Robert Bly is my negative example.
Unfortunately, the role of consumer has replaced that of citizen. We have to wait for Harold Pinter to denounce U.S. foreign policy from a high place. I recently traveled to a literary conference in China and was told that writers there self-censor in order to avoid trouble. It’s no different in the U.S.
9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):
Lemon : Gentlemen
Chiseled : Rilke
I : Spy
Of : Conundrum
Form : Worn
10. What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?
When I wrote my novel Saigon, Illinois (1988) in five months, my body was involved because I wasn’t comfortable writing in prose. It felt like I was driving a race car. Writing Poems in Spanish (2005) was more of a “dance.” I wanted quick, smooth lateral movement in language—openness, in a sense—so the writing felt easy, no tension. Roethke was a “body” poet when he marched around his house naked, practicing his cadences out loud.
In poetry, body means voice. Roland Barthes wrote that it was not the “clarity of messages” that counts in voiced poetry but rather “pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language.” Voice lends drama, intention, color, ethos, and character. All poetry is performance poetry in this sense.