Q & A: Poetry, Okla Elliott, Heather Christle
The December 2011 issue of Poetry is themed The Q&A Issue. Without any prefatory or explanatory note, the issue consists entirely of poems, followed with Q&A interviews with the poets about the poems that precede the interviews.
The issue opens with Dan Beachy-Quick’s “In a Station of the Metro,” which, at thirty-two lines, seems something akin to epic when juxtaposed against Ezra Pound’s two-line modernist poem of the same title. The title itself is provocative, and when the poem also lifts lines from the other poem, the reader has questions to ask the poet. It is a rare pleasure, then, to turn the page, and find that the magazine has already asked some of them.
The poem obviously shares its title — as well as a lot of diction — with Pound’s famous two-line poem. But while Pound’s poem goes “in fear of abstractions,” your actually contains the word “abstraction” in its first line. Could you talk about the relationship between Pound’s poem and your own? And did you feel it was a risk to use his title?
Beachy-Quick’s response, in part:
Invariably we come not only to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” when the issue of image arises, but also to Pound’s great definition of image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” More, we consciously or unconsciously go through the entire list of “don’t's”: to fear abstractions such as “dim lands of peace,” to prefer the natural object as the proper symbol, to find the fitting music, not the music of the metronome . . . So I made a ridiculous choice. To make a sort of amends (either to myself, or to poetry, or to what exactly I don’t know), I thought I would work within and against that most famous of Imagist poems, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” I thought in particular about the mythology of the poem, how he took some dozens of lines and, over the course of nearly a year, chiseled the poem down to these fourteen words (not counting the title): “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough.” My impulse — a tricksterish one, I know — was to undo the damage that Pound inflicted on his poem in order to perfect it. I thought of it as an inflationary poetic — that there might be, must be, some way to find in each word that residue of forceful compression that would in itself point the way back out to a wildly expansive poem . . .
The interview goes on for six single-spaced pages, along the way tackling H.D.’s Sea Garden, the limitations inherent in the good things Beachy-Quick has found in the poetry workshop, a moment from Paradise Lost, Keats’s “penetralium,” the “sheer excess of Rilke’s vision” in the Duino Elegies (“its flowers blossoming outward eternally”) in contrast with “Pound’s Imagist masterpiece,” Emerson’s suggestion that “every line of a poem must be a poem,” the act of putting William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” directly into Beachy-Quick’s “Overtakelessness” but backwards (“beside the white chickens / glazed with rain water / a red wheelbarrow / so much depends upon”), and the idea of grappling with a poet’s poetic inheritance as “the fact of love’s difficulty.”
It is a generous act of willing vulnerability that Beachy-Quick performs, in answering the magazine’s questions with such thoroughness. It seems unlikely that his answers — or anyone’s — about his own poem will do justice to the poem itself, if the poem is a poem worth answering questions about. There is something inherently reductive, to be sure, about explicating one’s own work, as there is something correspondingly expansive about it. On the one hand, the reader benefits from hearing about the poet’s thinking about the poem, and the poet’s process, and the poet’s own reading of the poem, which expands our own reading of it as much as hearing any intelligent person’s reading of a poem expands our own reading of a poem. On the other hand, the poet runs the risk of walling off some of the good work the poem does absent the poet. (Another risk, too: In this age in which the willfully anti-intellectual pose in response to literature — which sometimes is articulated in a mocking way: Aren’t you laughable for trying to think aloud about a poem or story instead of simply experiencing it? Ha Ha Ha, bro! – Beachy-Quick has willingly opened himself to the mocking, perhaps out of a belief in the ongoing presence of good-faith readers who are interested in talking and thinking about poems and how they are made, as well as in reading and experiencing them and being open to the inarticulable and transcendent pleasures they might offer.)
There is a second tradition of response to the interviewer’s questions, which we might see in an honorable or a pejorative light, depending upon our inclination, which is to decline comment, on grounds of the work’s singularity and independence, after it has been sent into the world, from its maker or the circumstances or habits of mind that led to its making. The less charitable reader might chalk up this way of responding to a kind of armor the writer wears: If I don’t talk about it, they can’t get me for anything I’ve said about it. The more charitable reader might take the unwillingness to fully engage the question at face value: This work can’t be reduced to the reading you’ve implied in your question, or to the reading I might offer in my answer. I won’t shortchange the reader in this way.
This style of reply is also represented in the magazine, in Linda Kunhardt’s response to questions about her four-line poem “Clifton Webb,” which goes like so:
I smell the blood of low-definition attorneys.
I smell the blood of low-definition attorneys.
I smell the blood of low-definition attorneys.
I σμελλ τηε βλοοδ οφ λοω-δεφινεδ αττορνεψσ.
When Poetry‘s interviewer asks “What is a ‘low-definition attorney?,” Kunhardt answers the question sideways and funny:
A cross between a television set and a lawyer.
The interview–which is only three questions long — ends like so:
The last line of the poem is a faux-Greek transcription of the previous lines. Why Greek letters? We found ourselves enjoying the humor in this poem, but couldn’t quite explain how it works. Can you?
I found a similar tension at work in the last two interviews I conducted for HTMLGiant, with the authors of two small-press books. First, Okla Elliott, author of the short story collection From the Crooked Timber, and clearly of the Beachy-Quick school: Be sincere and thorough. Second, Heather Christle, author of the poetry collection The Trees The Trees, and clearly of the Kunhardt school: Be brisk, funny, and deflecting. Although, in Christle’s case (and probably, in Kunhardt’s case, as well), also: Be sincere.
In a sense, the reader imagines, the two varieties of response are two competing varieties of sincerity. At the end of Christle’s interview, in which she chose to respond by video rather than by emailing, she concludes: “It is difficult . . . to talk about these poems that I wrote. I hope that they are better than I am. I hope that if they are, it’s because I am not exactly the author of them, that I was so involved with form and language when I wrote them, that form and language wrote them just as much as I did, and when I am speaking, now, I am too much in control of what I am saying, and can’t say anything worthwhile, for which I apologize. ”
I found myself enjoying both styles of response, and, in light of the issues raised by the Poetry Q&A issue, I wanted to be alert to the pleasures, possibilities, and limitations of both interviewee postures, as a reader, and also as a person who occasionally sits in the other chair.
Of Okla Elliott’s From the Crooked Timber, Franz Wright says: “The seeming ease and clarity of the prose — the hardest thing to achieve in writing of any kind — makes many appearances.” I asked Elliott a few questions, and he answered expansively.
You’re known most widely as a poet, you’ve also worked as an essayist, anthologist, and translator, and your day job is the scholarly work (in atrocity studies, among other things) you’re doing as the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois. I also know, because we’re friends, that you have half a decade, at least, in an in-progress postapocalyptic sci-fi-ish novel you’re writing in collaboration with Raul Clement. It seems like this kind of wide-ranging career is anachronistic — it hearkens back to the old idea of the man-or-woman-of-letters, and it’s hard to think of many writers working this way, these days. (Kelly Cherry, Laura Kasischke, Fred Chappell, Johannes Goransson, and Joyelle McSweeney are a few that come to mind.)
Probably my first model for this sort of thing was Robert Penn Warren, whose work I began reading as a teenager, in part because he was a fellow Kentuckian, and All the King’s Men ends up taught in high schools all over Kentucky because Warren is the state’s most famous writer. His claim that one should write in all the genres—and that the efforts in each will enhance the efforts in all—was an idea that struck me as immediately true. Also, it has always seemed a little odd to me that one would want to limit oneself to a single genre. I mean, why should we close ourselves off from the joys of poetry or drama or fiction or nonfiction or translation? I get ideas that fit in each genre all the time and try to complete as many as I can. Gore Vidal was once asked how he produced so much work in so many genres, and he answered, as is his style, with a wonderfully pissy little one-liner: “A writer writes; I’m not sure what other people do.” In the final analysis, I think that’s basically my position (minus the pissiness).
When I look at those writers I most admire, they almost always work in multiple genres, even if they sometimes are significantly better in one than another. Albert Goldbarth writes genius-level poetry, pretty damn good essays, and he has a novel I didn’t much care for. I am, however, completely convinced that without those essays and the novel, his fourteen-page narrative/essayistic poems would not have the huge effect they do. And then there are writers like David R. Slavitt, Fred Chappell, George Garrett, and Kelly Cherry who just absolutely own every genre they work in. Robert Penn Warren won a Pulitzer for both poetry and fiction, as well as a National Book Award for poetry—all of which completely deserved—so the idea that writing in multiple genres spreads a writer’s talents thin is completely unfounded. And if you look at older authors I admire—Brecht, Chekhov, Goethe, Voltaire, etc—they all worked in multiple genres and often worked in fields outside of literature as well. So I guess I’ll just end by saying that I am following in the footsteps of those writers I most admire when I attempt to work in multiple genres and in fields outside creative writing.
How does the work you’ve been doing in comparative studies, Theory, cognitive psychology, and so on, impact or influence the work you do when you sit down to write fiction? What do you think about the now-popular idea that the scholarly starves the creative?
One of the weirdest antagonisms I’ve ever seen is between scholars and creative writers. Here are two groups who have so many interests in common yet often detest (or at least dismiss) each other in the departments where they co-exist. I attribute this to what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, which is the tendency for people to more vehemently dislike those who are similar to them but have a few minor differences than they dislike people who are radically different. I hope that the advent of the PhD with creative dissertation will correct this silliness, since those students will have to take some scholarly classes and see how reading major philosophers and cultural theorists can only improve your thinking. In an age when literature departments are being slashed in the corporatized university model, we all need to stand together and realize we have much more in common than in opposition, and that we have lots that each side of this odd turf war can learn from each other.
The most interesting piece in From the Crooked Timber, to my taste, was the novella “The Names of Distant Galaxies,” which closes the book. It is a formal experiment unlike anything I’ve read before. The closest analogues it calls to mind are some of the long poems of Albert Goldbarth and Charles Baxter’s novella “Believers.” And it is different in kind from the stories that precede it, which seem more interested in concerns about character than concerns with form. Could you talk a little about your thoughts as you were planning and shaping the novella? Does it suggest a new direction your fiction will be taking in the future?
I have been interested for a long time in finding a proverbial “third way” between so-called experimental writing (which so rarely conducts experiments) and so-called psychological realism (which is so rarely realistic in psychological terms). That novella was an attempt at merging the two. The narrator is writing a novel in the psychological realist tradition, but when he writes notes to himself and comments on that writing, I wanted to recreate my own talking/thinking voice as accurately as possible. I wanted to get at the difference between the way I talk and think, and the way I would write that kind of novel.
It does suggest where my writing is going. I am done, for now at least, with straight-forward character stories. Characters—that is, humans—are what matter, but I want to find new ways to make them matter. What has always interested me about David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann is that they are using all the po-mo/experimental techniques to get at the very traditional goal of figuring out human emotions, consciousness, and behavior. I would like to do more of that.
My favorite piece of yours is an essay that originally appeared in the Indiana Review, titled “The Impossible Division by Zero,” which tells, indirectly, the story of what seems to me to be the world’s smartest child fighting through the world’s most difficult childhood. Could you talk a little about where you’ve come from, and how you got from there to here?
I’ve mostly preferred not to talk about this stuff until recent years, when I wrote that essay. And it still feels weird to talk about it, so I’ll just give a general outline. My childhood was unenviable. My father was born in 1917, fought in WWII, and came back a mostly useless drunk. After running a first marriage into the ground, he married my schizophrenic mother. I was conceived when he was sixty-one years old and my mother was thirty. He died when I was ten. My sisters, who are heroes, adopted me after the State of Kentucky determined my mother unfit to raise me—and this while they were still undergrads in college, a time when most people have trouble making it to a noon intro to lit class. I got a job at McDonalds when I was fifteen and a half (which is when you can legally begin working in Kentucky), and helped pay bills and whatnot. My sisters and I are the first generation of our family to graduate high school and to enter college, so that has had lots of effects on me, most profound of which being that I view education as the most important thing in the world, since it was a means of liberation and enrichment for me and my sisters.
It is difficult to open a literary journal these days and not find one of your translations from German of the post-war poems of Jürgen Becker. Are you working on a book-length version of those translations? What other translations are you working on? What is it about bringing foreign writers into English that appeals to you?
I think that translation is one of the most important activities a writer can engage in, both in terms of personal aesthetic education and giving to the literary culture as a whole. When I translate, I get to live in the shape and feel of another writer’s literary imagination for a while, and I learn by playing the mimic. As for other translations, I have done my Goethe, which every Germanist feels the need to tackle. Goethe was perhaps the only intelligence greater than Tesla’s (especially when you think that Darwin names him as his primary entomological influence). Translating Goethe at all is an act of arrogance, so I have only published one so far, because achieving what he did with the German language in English borders on the impossible.
I will also say that the American literary scene is sadly devoid of international influence. We tend to anoint one writer from each world region and ignore all the rest—so Murakami is our Japanese (or even pan-Asian) guy; Bolaño is our Latin American guy right now; and so on. There are just hundreds and hundreds of great writers who are getting very little air-time yet who deserve to be lauded and read by everyone. Becker is a German writer I feel this way about, but Jorge Volpi in Mexico is another one. Both have, of course, had good careers, but I think they deserve more. And so, translation is also a means of setting the record straight by giving attention to under-appreciated talents.
I wrote an essay on the craft and market for translation for Poet’s Market 2010 (reprinted in the 2011 edition as well) that sums up a lot of my thinking on those aspects translation. You can also find it at As It Ought to Be.
Are you happy with From the Crooked Timber and its reception, now that it’s in the world? Does the idea of an audience factor into the work you do, when you’re doing the work? What is it you hope your fiction can do and be?
Literary writing is an odd beast because as we’re doing it, it has to be a labor of love, but when it’s done, it becomes a product for sale. This is different than journalism or other forms of popular writing. When I was doing freelance journalism for a few years, I certainly put a certain amount of love into my work, but I knew from the get-go that it was a product for sale and I knew exactly the publisher and consumer for that product. Literary production is usually done on spec, with no guarantee of publication (unless you’re insanely famous, and even then it can often get bumped), so a lot more pressure is put on the love of the work. In effect, the work itself has to be enough to warrant doing it, since the joy of writing it might very well be the only reward we’ll ever receive. I therefore consider any recognition via sales and readers who’ve never met me pure gravy. For a small press collection of short fiction, From the Crooked Timber is outselling expectations. It made its way to #10 on Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” list, and so far it’s received a favorable reception in general.
Do I want more? I mean, would I turn down a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize or whatever? Of course not. I’d be ecstatic if some major award came my way or if a movie were made from one of my pieces, thus garnering me lots of cash to travel the world and eat well and not worry about work. Do I want to have my words on everyone’s lips? Of course. But I don’t see any way to plan or force that state of affairs, so I will just keep doing my thing until something bigger happens, and I will be happy with my life even if it doesn’t.
Of Heather Christle’s The Trees, The Trees, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats says: “If you’re thinking about a new tattoo, may I recommend dropping your finger onto any random phrase in Heather Christle’s new book?” I sent some questions and observations about the book from my AOL account to Heather’s Gmail account, and she responded in 480p video. God bless the Internet.
The Trees The Trees opens with an epigraph by Aleksandar Ristovic, which seems to invite being read as a provocation: “I don’t care about the flowers, which I merely invented to give myself another reason to address you.”
Christle’s video response: httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lV3NOwKUNEA
The first thing the reader notices about the poems, before even reading the poems, is the shape of the poems. They’re look like little boxes. They’re all arranged in justified blocks. They look like prose poems, except they have Tab-
here is the hand here is the hand on my faceit’s not my hand it’s a beautiful day again Ican hardly believe anything what about you whoare so frequently touching some part of the worldwhat is it you’re touching today when I touch thetrees the trees think man-child they are sowrong but it is a human face I put on I amhung up under this weather I am hanging on tightto a swing when I go up enough I jump then Iam not touching anything then the world thinksI’ve disappeared I am just having a little funnot much fun at all are you sad did you touchthe world the wrong way everything is alwayshappening and not just for show I want toshow you something I don’t care what I wantyou to look where I say