from jubilat, Issue 18
Rae Armantrout was born in Vallejo, California, in 1947. She is the author of eleven books of poetry, including Versed (2009), which received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. Her other poetry collections include Next Life (2007), selected as the New York Times "Notable Book" in 2007; as well as Up to Speed (2004) and Veil: New and Selected Poems (2001), both finalists for the PEN Center USA Award. She has also published a collection of interviews and essays, Collected Prose (2007). Armantrout's other honors include a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and two Fund for Poetry awards. She is a professor of Writing and Literature at UC San Diego, where she has taught for more than two decades. This interview was conducted by Robert N. Casper in New York City on March 13, 2009.
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Can you talk about the importance of voice in your poems?
There are so many voices in the air. Sometimes they become the voices in my head—voices from the media, or a tone of voice from my mother. All of those voices go into who we are, and are distinguishable from us too. My beginning point is to separate myself from them, or throw them off by putting brackets around them. There wasn't much conscious use of other voices in my first book, Extremities. However, the first poem in my second book, The Invention of Hunger, was taken partly from a Scientific American article about termites and partly from some material about S&M bondage. And certainly my use of outside voices continues: for instance, here is my poem "Integer," from Versed:
of stars. Something dark
is ritual sacrifice.
It kills the look-alike.
metaphor is homeopathy.
A healthy cell
exhibits contact inhibition.
These temporary credits
will no longer be reflected
in your next billing period.
The third section came directly from my phone bill. While I was working on the poem, my husband Chuck read that aloud to me and said, "What does this mean?" and I thought, That goes in. We didn't know what temporary credits were, but it sounded sort of ominous—temporary credit now being revoked.
It's interesting to note how that found section is embedded in the poem, and how the poem responds to it, as it is echoing and questioning its terms.
The Fourth section responds to the word "reflected" in the third section, but it also responds to the word" dark" in the first section. That pulls the three sections together, at least in my mind, and then goes to "not amenable to suggestion"—as if reflection is a kind of suggestion. It also connects back to the second part and portrays metaphor as a kind of reflection.
Can you talk more about the use of question-and-response as a rhetorical device in your poems?
A good example of that might be the last two sections of "A Resemblance," in Versed:
"Are you happy now?"
Would I like
a vicarious happiness?
Though I suspect
yours of being defective,
I ask two questions, then give an answer. "Look alikes" actually responds to some of the comp'arisons I've made before—it refers to the similes poetry is supposed to deal in. And then, "Are you happy now?"—okay, so I've made some similes, are you happy nowr That's the kind of voice you hear in a relationship ....
Or one you might hear on television—it's a stock phrase.
Right—it's also something that might occur in dialogue. When I use such phrases, I call it "faux collage"—sometimes they are "real" found language, and sometimes they only seem to be real. Putting "Are you happy now?" in quotes makes it look like the former, but it isn't, really ... I didn't see it somewhere or hear it on television. Sometimes I do pick out phrases I see or hear on television, but sometimes I just make them up because they're already in my head.
By contrast, the next question, "Would. I like / a vicarious happiness," seems wholly original.
And I answer it with "yes" and an exclamation point. What follows undercuts that "yes" a bit—it's as if I'm saying I'd like to share your happiness in a vicarious way, although I'm also suspicious that you're faking your happiness. Which I'll never know.
I'm happy you brought that up: I admire the ways your poems use the exclamatory, as in the final section of "A Resemblance." Which made me all the more surprised by the lack of a period at the end of the poem.
Sometimes I just want to give the sense that the thought process isn't quite finished, so I won't put a period at the end of the last word of the poem. And other times, I want the reader to get the sense that they should keep thinking, because this might go on.
I often begin with a sense of puzzlement about something—with a real question, perhaps unformed in my own mind. There might not be an answer to it, so you work through and you still end unresolved—I find this aesthetically interesting, because then you have a kind of dynamics and complexity going on. Forces pulling away from and pushing against each other.
I wonder how the fluid interplay of private and public language in your poems relates to their speaker?
I'm fascinated by, and concerned with, what the self is—what a single thing is, what defines oneself or a thing. I think that the edges blur ... I'm not saying we don't have selves, but I've always been interested in the tension between the singular and the multiple. I was just reading Being And Event by Alain Badjou, in which he talks about the initial act of consciousness, which he calls "Count as One." At some point in our early development, in the midst of the buzzing, blooming, confusing world of sensory phenomenon around us, we define the object—what is the chair? Is it part of the table or not part of the table? Yesterday I went to see the Pierre Bonnard show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in many of his pieces one color spills over from an object where it apparently belongs onto an object or a person on which it apparently doesn't belong. I'm interested in pointing out those edges and those blurs, whether they're personal or have to do with objecthood.
I would like to talk about "Dark Matter," the second section of Versed. Did working with a thematic focus—i.e., addressing your fight with cancer—affect your writing process?
My method didn't really change. It's just that that part is more thematically coherent because I kept thinking about the same thing over and over ... it was not going leave my mind, at least not for awhile. It's statting to recede a bit now, so I'm moving on to other subjects—I hope not prematurely—but of course that was going to be uppermost in my mind for the first year and a half or so, right? There was a de facto coherence, and then after awhile I began to see how it was coming together with a certain tone. Some poems at the end of the first section deal directly with my illness, so it's not an absolute distinction. For instance, the poem "Owned" is based on notes I took in the hospital, even in the leu. It's amazing to me that I couldn't read, but I was still scribbling things. By contrast, I wrote the poem "Birth Order" after I got home, when I was just thinking about cancer. "On Your Way" deals with death, and it's near the end of the Versed section—it sort of shifts there. The poems in the second section are written in the moment of a sort of afterlife—after surgery, and after the shock I went through, because I had no idea I had cancer. In fact, I was in New York three weeks before I was diagnosed, walking around giving readings, and I was fine. It was very sudden, and I was completely unprepared—I wasn't even that upset, because I was too shocked. Then I went into surgery, and came home with a slim prospect of recovery. I thought, Okay, now I am a dying person. "Dark Matter" was written from that point of view—not exactly deliberately, but that's how it happened. There were a few poems that I moved ... "Heaven" is one, oddly, and "Guess" is one that I wrote after I came home. I can't remember why I moved "Heaven," because it seems like it could have been in "Dark Matter" now. Sometimes we don't understand these things. The first section in Versed is a bit more manic, and there are a lot of playful notes in poems like "Pleasure" or "Name Calling" that refer to sex and even romance. There was that kind of liveliness and quirkiness in "Versed," and "Dark Matter" grew more somber. In the end, I was not always writing to the topic of disease, but striking a more austere tone that I would want to return to.
In a previous interview, you seemed to resist being called a lyric poet. What does the term lyric mean to you, and how might it relate to your poems?
I recently wrote an essay on my relationship to the lyric, for the eighth installment of The Grand Piano project—a kind of collective autobiography I'm involved in. I'm never sure exactly what people mean by lyric poetry—they seem to mean a relatively short, self-contained poem, as opposed to a book-length work. And it's not a prose poem. Do they also mean a poem that foregrounds or emphasizes sound? Maybe ... but Pound did that in the "Cantos," and the "Cantos" is a book-length quasi-narrative poem, so I don't know if you'd call it a lyric. Or is the lyric something that tries to stop time or freeze a moment in an epiphanic way? My poems try to sort of imagine a complicated present that doesn't really lead to an epiphany per se. But still, my poetry might relate to the lyric in its attempt to bring together a version of the present ... I read with Cole Swenson last night, and it struck me that her work is always about the historical in some sense, while mine is always about the present.
How do you see scientific and religious language fitting into your present? Certainly both play a role in your poems.
I'm attracted to both scientific and religious explanations without necessarily believing in either. Of course, I come closer to believing in the former—I believe its method is closer to a process of truth. Still, that doesn't mean that at any point a particular scientific paradigm is true. I like the way both ventures of thought are trying to reach to ultimate causes. But at the same time, I tend to want to question them, and to put them in conjunction, perhaps because I was raised in a fundamentalist religion. I probably turned to science at first as a kind of prophylactic against religion. I've already seen science's idea of the universe's change, and it's changing fairly rapidly now—I mean, they just came up with the idea of dark energy, and discovered the universe is expanding at a faster rate instead of slowing down. So, the scientific attempt to reach truth is obviously provisional.
Along the same lines, do you see poetry as a process of truth?
Well, sometimes when I read a poem and I enjoy it, I do get the sense of "That's true." I think we're always going for truth—you can read a statement in one poem and have a "That's true" response, and later read a poem that says almost the exact opposite, which in context will also give you that truth. Lisa Robertson and I read together recently, and we discovered that we both have a poem about heaven. Mine's called "Heaven" and in verse, while hers is called "Essay on Heaven"—and they actually said the opposite thing! For instance, the second part of my poem states, "Heaven is symmetric with respect to rotation," while hers had something do with asymmetry. It was odd that we both had this concept, and it seemed like either one worked in context. Then you realize, there really is no firm meaning there.
Getting back to an earlier topic, I think the phrase "Symmetrical with respect to rotation" came from one of these layperson books about science. We think of symmetry in relation to beauty and aesthetics, and as a grand concept, but that line was such a dry description of it—reductive yet accurate. There's such a jarring clash of tones in the poem—it's an example of how I connect religion and science.
In your essay "Cheshire Poetics," you state, "I think of my poetry as inherently political (though it is not a poetry of opinion)." Can you elaborate on that statement?
Well, I'll see if I can get this quote right: I think it was Yeats who said, "Of our argument with others, we make rhetoric; of our arguments with ourselves, we make poetry." I guess a poem of opinion would be essentially an argument with others, trying to persuade others. When you attempt to do so, you make as consistent an argument as you can. I'm more interested in the way we argue with ourselves and the potential dissonances that we find around us.
Through those dissonances, and your use of public language, your work has a clear political engagement. Yet its unwillingness to define a line of argument frustrates a straightforward political reading.
Maybe the poem "Fade" is an example of that kind of thing:
The new reality
is a pastiche
in the Gulf
worry out loud
about their performance.
But how do we
come into it?
So much happiness
to burst out
The poem starts out with a political commentary on "new reality," or reality television. There actually was a PBS version of a reality TV show about an aircraft carrier, in which fighter pilots talk off-the-cuff, off-guard. And they say, "Am I dropping enough bombs?" and "I don't get to drop my bombs"—that sort of thing. Which I thought was so odd I had to put it in a poem. The term "zombie strippers" comes from a sort of B movie called Zombie Strippers that I happened to see an ad for at that same time. In the second part of the poem, I'm really talking about poetry and myself as a poet, and that's a different subject. I like the way "language" and "caged" echo each other, and then are "ready / to burst out / anytime // and fade" like a jet taking off or a bomb exploding, producing a sort of release.
I'm happy you brought that poem up—I think it's a good example of the interplay between the abstract and the concrete in your work. How do you think both types of language operate in your poems, and how do you decide to turn from one to the other?
This is something I often have to discuss with my students. Recently I taught a graduate workshop, but with art students, so there was a really high level of abstraction. Somebody actually put the phrase "Derridian paradigm" in a poem, and "heteronormativity"—that's a mouthful! So we had to have the abstraction discussion. Basically I told them you don't want to rely a lot (or entirely) on abstract language, unless you're a philosopher—philosophers create their own definitions, logic, and contexts for their abstractions. And abstraction doesn't work unless it has a context, but the poem can try to provide a context for the abstraction by embedding it in situations or images or something concrete. In my poems there is always a tension between the abstract and the concrete, but I hope there's also a relation, and so it's a productive tension.
One can see the poem title as concrete, as well as metaphoric. The first stanza is entirely abstract, but then you switch to a moment that is, if not overly descriptive, at least more concrete.
It provides an example.
It also announces the poem's political framework, which gets played out via your signature juxtaposition of ideas and notions and tones. Also, the poem uses more abstract language than you might think upon first read—it seems to concretize its abstractions.
Yeah, I think that's true.
And a word like "caged" (like "fade") plays it both ways, as in the condition and the actual cage.
And the stripper might be in a cage.
Especially since she's a zombie.
One would hope! The poem "Money Shot" ends with the quote "why don't you just say what you mean? Why don't I?" Could you talk about the balance in your poems between revelation and resistance?
Well, actually that section of "Money Shot" is based on a dream—it's not uncommon for me to include dreams in my poems. Dreams are always to some extent coded—it's as if you're censoring yourself in your dream, at least as Freud would have it. And why are they coded? You could ask the same question about poems, really—why are they disguised? There must be a reason. I'm not sure I know it—it's just how the mind works. The last line is actually a play on a voice from the dream ... I'm on a crowded ship, and I've been served the wrong breakfast—this small mound of soggy dough is not what I ordered. I complain, and the waiter replies, "Why don't you just say what you mean?" When I woke up and began to write out the poem, I thought the 'I' in the poem is equivalent to the dream. And I wondered, Why isn't the dream saying what it means, and what does it mean?
About the Author
Robert N. Casper is the Programs Director of the Poetry Society of America. He is also the Publisher of the literary magazine jubilat and the co-founder of the jubilat/Jones Reading Series in Amherst, Massachusetts. He lives in Brooklyn, New York and serves as the Poetry Chair for the Brooklyn Book Festival.
University of Massachusetts
Publisher: Robert N. Casper
Editors: Cathy Park Hong, Evie Shockley
Managing Editor: Laurie Capps