from Gulf Coast, Summer 2014
Stephen Burt and Maureen N. McLane were invited by Gulf Coast to interview each other about poetry, poetics, reviewing, etc., throughout Fall 2013, which they did via email. The last two of their five Exchanges are reprinted here.
* * *
EXCHANGE No. 4
Stephen Burt: "What I'm looking for / is an unmarked door": an early poem in the new book (This Blue, 2014) suggests that you are seeking, and creating, a sound or a voice or an effect that's beyond attribution, beyond reason, perhaps beyond criticism. Are you conscious of trying to write poetry that exceeds what critics—yourself included—can articulate? Do you want poems that elude the critics?
Maureen N. McLane: I don't know that I'm conscious, or unconscious, of trying to exceed or elude critics, including even myself. I suppose one always hopes to be surprised, by others' work as much as one's own. That sense of not-knowing-in-advance is very precious to me.
SB: "do I recommend // nothing?" I get the sense, here and in your earlier verse, and maybe in your associative critical method (in My Poets), that you can see poetry as drift, as dérive in the Situationists's sense, something that stands outside the purposefulness or the focus of more narrowly academic lives. Is my sense right? How would I know? (Does poetry have a purpose?)
MNM: I think your sense is wholly right. Your swerve into the dérive and drift—that seems completely syntonic with one way I think about poetry, aspects of movement I like and respond to. I'm enough of a Shelleyan or Kantian or Winnicottian or whatever it might be to continue to think of poetry as a mode of un- or anti-calculating play, non-instrumental expression or exploration, purposive purposelessness; I often think of Whitman's "I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." Oren Izenberg has a wonderful essay on the dream of ease in poetry (always haunted by un- or dis-ease); certainly poetry has held for me a space of, if not always ease, possible capaciousness. And there's something too that appeals to me in the wayward or errant itinerary—poetry as a "darling walk for my mind," as Burns put it. I don't know that poetry has a purpose, but poetries have many purposes, and some refuse a standard of purpose.
SB: Is ''Another Day in This Here Cosmos" about Sheep Meadow (the part of Central Park, not the independent press)? How much are you a New York poet?
MNM: Yes indeed: Sheep Meadow! But not only Sheep Meadow: other meadows too, in New Hampshire, in England, in upstate New York: "my mind to me a meadow is," perhaps. A palimpsest of meadows. New York has definitely made its way into my poems, as have "New York poets," who I suppose were always there; it's hard for me to say yet how much I am either a New York poet or a "New York Poet."
SB: "You make everything / your thing." Are there topics you believe that you (you in particular, not "poets") cannot write about? Have you tried to write about them?
MNM: Ha, great question. I tend not to think about topics per se (claimed or disclaimed), though there are zones that seem to me very delicate or raw or not yet resolved into a key to write in—often I discover what I'm writing "about" in the writing. Mothering and daughtering seem to me areas I'm still hovering over and through; writing about and through other subjectivities is also a great lure—I'm reading now a Chilean poet, Enrique Winter, and his work is terrifically novelistic in its cast of characters and social locations. Cathy Park Hong does endlessly inventive, fascinating speculative work, of a kind quite different from my own. I have tended to think more that there are kinds of writing I'm less likely or able to do, rather than specific topics: I always thought I could never write a novel, because I really don't do plot. I'm interested in opening up (or discovering) a space in poetry where potentially any "topic" might find a home.
SB: "Some are gay / in an old way." When—if ever—is it important to you that representations of sexuality come across as sexy? What makes language sexy (and for whom)? (Sidelong look at "That Man," and at Sappho, and at the argument, associated with the critic Yopie Prins, that we make up the Sappho we want, sometimes out of nothing. Have you ever made up the poet you thought you would need, deliberately invented a historical or imaginary precursor?)
MNM: Hmm. Sometimes I feel that this zone—of sexuality and/or the sexy—is more controlled or informed by a poetic mode than by me (or any given poet): so, in a lyric zone, there's this pop and zing and swell and pulse, a linguistic erotics one can call on, from Sappho and Catullus and everyone onward. And one might say, for example, that Wallace Stevens's language is very sexy though there aren't many overt representations of sexuality. Emily Dickinson: crazy sexy! in both senses, at times. "Wild nights—Wild nights! ... Might I but moor—tonight— / in thee!" I think Prins is right about Sappho, though one is not making her out of nothing: my Sappho as it were comes trailing clouds of all kind of translators' and metrical and queer glory. To your final question here: I've never deliberately invented a precursor but I love this idea: a whole new conceptual project! aligned with, say, Macpherson's Ossian, perhaps. Or in another key, with Virginia Woolf's Judith Shakespeare.
SB: "The body without / organs has finally arrived." Only some readers will recognize the Deleuzean reference here. Is that a bug, or a feature? Do you think you've been influenced by what we call theory? Do you want to be influenced by it? Or influenced less?
MNM: Do you mean, are some possibly esoteric allusions in my work bugs or features? I guess I'd have to say bugs, but I have no interest in fixing the program, as it were—so maybe, on second thought, I would have to say things like that might be a feature. Phrases will appear in my poems as they appear in my mind—as part of the weave; I can then make a call on re-reading and thinking further about whether such a phrase or reference is too distracting or earns its keep, so to speak. I've certainly been influenced by theory; I've been influenced by everything I've spent intense time with—psychoanalysis, historiography, motets and madrigals, liturgy, romantic poets, queer theory, walking and swimming. I neither want nor do not want to be influenced by theory; one doesn't always get to choose one's influences.
SB: Do you feel closer to quatrains, or to short stanzas and regular forms, than you did? Has your sense of your relationship to pre-modern traditions changed? (This book seems closer to "lyric," if that matters. But not farther from anything else.)
MNM: Yes indeed I did feel that this book was much more stanzaic, so to speak, than the others: it was interesting, the way those shapes (quatrains and couplets in particular) kept holding my interest and directing me. I don't necessarily see a shift in my relationship to pre-modern traditions; I think what might be happening is that after writing books with a number of more loosely-joined poems (particularly poems called "Passage"), I was after something a bit more tightly constructed—not always, but often.
SB: How Should a Person Be? is the title of a book by Sheila Heti: that must be deliberate; do you deliberately avoid, or deliberately offer, useful advice?
MNM: Ha! In life I think I try to avoid giving advice unless it seems to be asked for; I tend to be more an active re-describer of situations than an adviser. Sometimes people really want advice; more often, they want to lay things out. I tend to be pretty resistant to receiving advice, which is not a mark of good character. But this is part of my antinomian streak. I took Heti's title, and her book, to be more a raising of the question than a supplying of an answer.
SB: "You will live / till one day it's over": in "Road / Here Now" in particular I hear Creeley and the Creeleyesque faux-naïf. Do you ever think of yourself as simplifying? As oversimplifying? As using the faux-naïf (I mean that as a neutral stylistic descriptor, not as a bad thing)?
MNM: Well, you have to know I'd never say I simplify or oversimplify! But you're asking something else: the faux-naïf is an interesting zone and I think that nails something in Creeley (and maybe in Williams, too?). I think there's something very interesting in the rehabilitation of the simple: how the simple might stand forth as newly authoritative, and not mindless, cheap, or easy. You know how certain nostrums sound both obvious and idiotic until one day they strike with stunning vigor into your soul? Wordsworth is for me the master of the faux-naïf: he often fails at it, but when he succeeds (e.g. in "We Are Seven," or in the daffodils poem, or "Hart-Leap Well"), it's exhilarating and spine-straightening, this amazing aesthetic and ethical power. Whitman too. Old ballads have taught me that, and German lieder, and pop music reminds us every day. The commonplace as the place of the commons, not cliché in the pejorative sense. This I am interested in. Lisa Robertson has this wonderful line, "It is too late to be simple." But I also think—and she obviously does as well—that it is too late to be unreflexively complex. Schiller's "On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry" remains a touchstone for me on this. Louise Glück's Wild Iris is one of the most amazing works in this vein: jaw-dropping.
SB: Did writing My Poets, with its poets taken in prose, free you up to write skinnier lines, more pared-down work, poems that feel less like arguments, less like any possible prose?
MNM: I've always had skinny lines, a pared-down mode-both my previous books had very minimalist (if one should call it that) poems and sequences, amidst other things. Epigrams and haiku and imagist poems have long floated through the ether of my mind. I love that economy and suspension. I do think My Poets opened up new avenues, though, for both prose and poetry—I'm still feeling that out. I do basically agree with Pound's dictum: "Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose."
SB: What are the advantages and the disadvantages of writing—as you now often write—an unusually thin, tall poem, with so many line breaks per unit of sense?
MNM: Do I have a lot of them? I guess I do, though I had been thinking of this new book as also a very quatrain-y kind of book. At any rate, the thin poems which mobilize a lot of line breaks—it's partly a matter of pacing and regulating attention, my own in composition and later a reader's. I'm very interested in different velocities, speeds, and accelerations. Creeley's "The Language" and "The Window" are two important poems for me on that front. August Kleinzahler is extremely interesting in terms of bravura speed and pace changes. Someone like Devin Johnston has an extraordinary capacity to regulate your nervous system as a reader, and to do so swiftly. That's what one wants, that command, that virtually physiological intimacy—to transmit it, communicate it.
SB: "O porcupine / spine in the mind": has your sense of rhyme, and of how you use rhyme, changed?
MNM: I continue to be enormously interested in rhyme, its possibilities and varieties, histories and futures; I don't know if my use or interest in rhyme has massively changed though it might be even more foregrounded in and dispersed across this book than in previous ones—I don't think though that I'll write another triolet sequence, as I did in World Enough. Rhyme signifies, and sometimes it signifies in concert with other patterns (refrain, stanza, etc.): and the orchestration of all that continues to fascinate me. Rhyme carries many things, not only immediate acoustic things. I never think of rhyme as an isolated thing, as in, Oh, now I'll write a poem that rhymes or sidles up to rhyme; it's more that certain works move into a certain register, some with embedded rhymes, some swerving from, some flagrantly embracing rhyme. In my long poem "Genoa" there's a kind of strong monorhyme that for me perfectly carries the momentum and halt of the poem; I'm interested in other rhyming systems, classical Arabic among them. And in rhyming prose as well. Gertrude Stein does well by rhyme.
SB: Is "travel poetry" an intelligible genre? Do you think that you write it? What are its advantages? Who's the best contemporary travel poet (if there can be such a thing)? The best ever?
MNM: Travel poetry: hmmm. I must say I would think I'd have an allergy to travel poetry per se, but on the other hand, I still really love Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel and all those poems. I don't think I write it, whatever it might be, but certainly I have a lot of poems inspired by different kinds of travel and living in and with other places—or the ideas of those places. Maybe I write questions-of-travel poetry. Best contemporary travel poet: huh! I do know August Kleinzahler's been writing these terrific "Traveller's Tales," over several books; Ange Mlinko's poems inspired by time in Beirut and on the Mediterranean are very arresting. And I do like Fred Seidel's mordant, zippy forays into Italy, Paris, and elsewhere. At any moment "travel" can devolve into tourism, or first-world-ism (sic), and the poems inflected by travel can devolve thus, too. I'd be very curious to hear your thoughts on this: do you believe this category exists, and if so, whom do you admire doing it?
SB: As for "travel poetry": I think it's an intelligible subgenre—that is, there are substantial poems on the topic that respond to one another and share features other than the topic, features that are matters of form, diction, tone, idea.
It's been around for a while. It has distinguishable parts. "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" is a travel poem. I bet there are eighteenth century poems about the Grand Tour, though none come to mind. William Allingham wrote a good poem about travel by train (though there we get into modes-of-transport poetry—planes, trains, and automobiles—rather than poems about visiting destinations).
The great trove of travel poetry in American letters comes from the 1950s, when so many somewhat privileged poets were asked or expected to write about Europe and European high art. Some of it hasn't worn well, but some has. I just reencountered Adrienne Rich's very early poem "Versailles."
Elizabeth Bishop's Questions of Travel is central to subsequent travel poems by Americans. Michael Hofmann's Corona, Corona, the whole book, used to be cited as remarkable travel poetry (most of it is about visiting Mexico). It's worth a look. Robert Minhinnick, who is Welsh, writes poems about travel to unglamorous places—Sasketchewan, for example, and Baghdad. The Scottish poet Jen Hadfield wrote a book that was half travel in Canada and within Scotland, called Nigh-No-Place, which I recommend. Elizabeth Alexander used to write them—she has a poem that begins, I think, "I could go to any city / and write a poem, so here I am in Miami ... " If you are looking for American poets who are reviving and renewing the subgenre in which the poet visits a European city and thinks about its heritage of high culture, look no further than the magnificent Angie Estes. Everybody with any interest in non-avant-garde contemporary poetry ought to be reading her.
SB: "Everything scaled / once again to the body": do you think there is any intelligible relation between the human body and breath and the shape of a poetic line? (Olson—"Love's in Gloucester"—did, of course.) Or is it a mistake to seek one?
MNM: I think there are intelligible relations between body/breath/line, yes, but these are acculturated, not given. They can be cultivated too, as I take Olson to be doing in "Projective Verse," or Ginsberg (say) to be doing. (I suppose there's a basic physiological limit or unit, e.g. the longest average breath humans tend to take, and maybe this approximates Homer's hexameter, or Italian endecasillabo, or Blake's or the Psalms' fourteeners, but that would get us into an interesting bio-anthropology of prosody.) Any singer knows what it is to develop better breath support; I can imagine poets aiming for that, analogously, in their work. Modeling the line explicitly on breath seems to me a powerful figure but still a figure. If one is a performance poet, or has habits of oral composition, then actual physiological pulses will become an integral part of one's work in a complex feedback loop. Any line or stanza is carrying that—the mark and pulse of others' bodies, and potentially your own.
SB: What were you doing in Belfast?
MNM: I was at a conference on radical balladry and song—and was thinking about Belfast; I was there in marching season. I went to places recommended by Paul Muldoon. It was fascinating and dreary, too—it was soon after the Crash. People were incredibly lovely. I was very aware that I did not know quite what to make of what I saw and heard.
SB: "The wildflowers / of New Hampshire / have yet to earn their names": I think you imply that these flowers don't look very wild. How wild do you want your own poetry to be?
MNM: Interesting question. No one would ever say, "I want my poetry to be tame." Now that would be a funny conceptual project! Maybe it's the secret or unwitting project of some poets. Doesn't Kenneth Goldsmith have a Boring Poetry Project? Anyway. The thing about the wild: it can't be willed. So, I would never say to myself, ah, I want my poetry to be wild! That kind of injunction seems to me a kind of forced performance. But you're asking me about degrees of wildness and aims, which is different. Certainly I might read or hear something by someone—poet or playwright or fiction-writer or musician—and think, I would love to channel that energy, capture or echo that sound, in my work. An artist I admire enormously is Young Jean Lee. I think of energy and velocity and pace and intensity, and I respond to a range of things in others' work and want to pursue a range of things in my own: I guess I do resist any prior restriction of what constitutes "the wild": is Dickinson not perhaps wilder than Whitman? Do we have to lapse into "paleface/redskin" (sic) models of literary typing, or raw/cooked divisions? Yet those designations do mean something, and sometimes we want things that are jagged and rough, other times perfected and smooth. Ariana Reines would likely be placed on the "wild" side of the spectrum, A. E. Stallings (say) on the more controlled end: both please me. I have a kind of both/and relation to this, both as a reader and a writer. I like making work that puts apparently opposed or disparate things together—that is one principle my books seem to follow. In terms of my own poetry: I think the dance between the "open"/"c1osed," wilder/more apparently decorous, and so on, is likely to persist. Some days one wants a sarabande, other days a mosh pit.
EXCHANGE No. 5
MNM: With Belmont now out in the world, do you find yourself writing more, differently?
SB: Good question. I don't find myself writing more—it's as hard as it ever was to find time to write poetry!—but I might be writing differently: I'm thinking more about sequences and sets of related poems—not everything I write is a stand-alone poem, right now—and I think I might be getting wilder, or at least less "cooked." But it's not for me to say.
MNM: Do you readily shift gears between writing poetry and prose, or does intense involvement with one preclude the other?
SB: Intense involvement with one precludes the other from day to day and from week to week but not from month to month. It's a neat week when I can finish, or think I've finished, both a set of poems (meaning two or three poems, usually) and a substantial block of prose. But I have had some neat weeks.
MNM: You wrote a wonderful essay, "Games about Frames," on the short poems of Craig Dworkin and Michael O'Brien: is this a mode you yourself want to work in more? See others do more with?
SB: Thanks! It's a mode, or a set of modes, that you have used yourself. I have used some of those modes—the epigrammatic, and the compressed lyric—myself (there's a set of them in Belmont called "Text Messages," and some four-line poems about works of art in my earlier books). I'm sure I'll write more epigrammatic poems and more compressed lyrics, though I doubt that they will be either as stripped-down as O'Brien's, or as intellectually ambitious (and ambiguous) as Craig Dworkin's.
MNM: You write about poetries in English far beyond the US: do you think there are still "national styles" of poetry, a bandwidth for English poetries, for example, or Irish poetries, that might not overlap with the US bandwidth? Are there zones of fertile cross-pollination? Are we still countries separated by a (semi)common language?
SB: 1. Are there ever! 2. Yes. 3. Yes.
I wrote about this sort of thing in a long piece in 2009, about British (and mostly English) national styles (it was in PN Review). British and Irish poets, most of them, still grow up with a sense that the poetry of the pre-modernist past has some connection to the language that they hear in non-literary life: that's one reason that pre-modernist, rhymed or metred forms (pentameters, quatrains) can seem natural to them, can fit with their speech rhythms, rather than seeming antiquarian, or learned, or contrived. That has nothing to do with genes, something to do with popular or "middlebrow" culture (they still care about Larkin, and about Heaney, in a way that we haven't cared about any poet since Frost), and something to do with their educational systems, which haven't shut poetry out of primary and secondary grades the way that we have.
Australia seems more like the US in this respect (if their poets adopt pre-modernist forms or modes it's quite conscious, and can sound forced). New Zealand and perhaps India and the Anglophone Caribbean (from what I know of their poetries) are in between.
There are also individual poets who are terrific but who rely on in-jokes and local or regional knowledge: Daljit Nagra is wonderful but good luck translating what he does for American readers without British South Asian acquaintances. (On the other hand, novelists who rely on the same knowledge of the same cultures—Zadie Smith, say—cross the Atlantic very well.)
None of this explains the totally baffling and head-against-wall frustrating (to me) neglect, in the United States, of half my favorite non-US poets: Robert Minhinnick, for example. Why doesn't he have a big US publisher now?
MNM: Sonnets: further thoughts after your book?
SB: I have many thoughts about individual sonnets and writers of sonnets, but as for the sonnet in general, I'm at least temporarily all out. "Sonnets aren't like anything, there are too many of them," as Randall Jarrell did not quite say.
MNM: What is your favorite period of poetry?
SB: There was a time when I would have said "1600-1660," without skipping a beat: Donne! Herbert! Lovelace (try "The Snail")! Corbett ("Farewell, rewards and fairies")! Jonson's nondramatic verse! I still love that stuff but I reread it less often, because I am trying harder to look outside what I already know how to take apart, trying harder to learn or to find something new.
I feel a kinship with the poets of the Lowell-Jarrell-Bishop generation—which, I know, is also the Spicer and the Brooks generation—that I don't feel with the High Modernists, nor with the poets who came of age in the 1960s. I think it has to do with wanting to write individual poems (rather than wanting to transform Poetry Itself); it has to do with my lack of any desire to smash everything and start over again. Individual poems, handfuls of poems, personal styles, can be quite transformative, if they're done right. I live amid complex structures that are flawed and weird and fascinating and sometimes psychically dangerous and I'd like to help our language repair and improve and alter and sometimes replace them; I have no interest in tearing them all down at once, though I'm interested in some people who try.
I'm not sure if that's a statement about periods, or a statement about taste, or a statement about politics. Maybe all three.
When I was co-writing the sonnet book, I was disappointed by most of my trawls through various early periods: the best-known sonnet writers of the 1590s really are the best ones, and the neglected sonnets of the early eighteenth century (by the Warton brothers) are neglected because they are not very good (though they remain required reading for some critics, scholars, literary historians). I still suspect that there are great things from the 1860s and 1880s, on the other hand, as there are surely great things from the 1980s and 1990s, that have yet to be revealed.
MNM: On another front: Do you think of yourself as writing "as Stephanie"? ''As Stephen"? Or is this wholly off?
SB: It's a good question. All my poems are by Stephen. Some of them are about being Stephanie. I think that means they are by Stephanie, as well: it's a name for an alternate identity, and a name for a girly part of myself, and a name I like to use when I am presenting as female, though I never insist that people use it, since I am Stephen even then, as well. (Think about cisgendered people you know who have nicknames: the same guy is Nicky or Nick or Nicholas, and might go by all three names at the same time, depending on the conversation—it's that way with me, except one of the names is for girls.)
This sort of thing is going to come up a lot more in my next book—assuming I finish it—which has a whole sequence of poems about the imaginary childhood and teen years of Stephanie, and another sequence, formally and tonally distinct (and maybe less fun), about the actual childhood of real me. The two sequences are meant as counterpoints. A few of the "Stephanie" poems have already appeared in journals. (None of the other sequence have ... yet.)
Belmont was two-thirds about household and family life and parenthood and kids, and one-third about imaginary other lives and gender; the next book is going to be more like half and half, or maybe even two-thirds to one-third the other way.
I so hope that the individual poems—if not the whole book—will make sense to people who don't feel like having to process all of those questions about contexts, about the real me, about self-presentation outside of poems. Yeats says that the actual author of the poems isn't the bundle of accidents who sits down to breakfast; they just happen to have the same name. Unless they don't.
MNM: How has teaching affected or inflected your writing, if at all?
SB: I felt oddly like a teacher when I was a student, and now that I am a teacher I feel oddly like a student. (That feeling may not be very odd, among teachers of literature; it may be widely shared.) That feeling, or that pair of feelings, has to be all over my writing, subsurface: I try to speak, when I write nonspecialist prose, not to my own prior self but to my former peers, and to some of my students, to think about what they want to know, what they already know, what they're likely to understand.
Teaching is a species of performance; the need to perform, to hold the attention of human beings (most of them younger than I am, most of them having read fewer literary works), has probably inflected, or infected, a lot of what I write, both poetry and criticism.
I would not want to give it up.
* * *
About the Authors
Stephen Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and criticism, including Belmont (2013), The Art of the Sonnet, with David Mikics (2010), and Close Calls with Nonsense (2009). For more about Stephen's work, try www.closecallswithnonsense.com.
Maureen N. McLane is the author of three books of poetry, including This Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Her book My Poets (FSG 2012), an experimental hybrid of memoir and criticism, was a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography and a New York Times Notable Book.
University of Houston
Faculty Editor: Nick Flynn
Editor: Zachary Martin
Managing Editor: Karyna McGlynn
Reviews & Interviews Editor: David Tomas Martinez