from Bennington Review, Spring/Summer 2016
Rae Armantrout is the author of twelve books of poetry. Her collection Versed (Wesleyan University Press) won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has appeared in many anthologies and journals. Partly: New and Selected Poems is forthcoming from Wesleyan in the fall of 2016.
She had the following conversation about her latest collection of poems, Itself (Wesleyan, 2015), electronically in February 2016, with Bennington Review Advisory Board member Katy Lederer.
Aristotle believed that the end of a thing defined its essential nature. The title of your new book, Itself, gestures toward the ontological, the essential. Can you talk a bit about how you arrived at this title?
I always title a book fairly late in the process after I've gathered more than a few poems. I have never started out by saying, "I think I'll write about this or that." I wish I could sometimes, but that is beyond me. I write about whatever interests me, whatever I notice, and then, at a certain point, with luck, I begin to see a tendency, a tenuous, wavering "through-line" in the poems. (The same thing could be said about individual poems, for that matter.) With Itself, I probably decided on the book title after I wrote the poem by that name. What interests me about the word "itself" is that it's a compound word, which is almost an oxymoron. Can an "it" have a "self"? That, of course, raises the question of what a self is, where the limits of selfhood are, and, perhaps, as you suggest, of ontology, of what it means to "be."
I can't say for certain whether I had written poems like "Difference," "Material," "Chirality" and "Expression" by the time I came up with the title for the book. If you look at those poems, though, you can see that they all poke at the questions I suggested above. "Expression" and "Material" might be worth quoting in this context. The last sentence in "Expression" is:
the hermit, trundling off
in someone else's
but we all
like a virus,
has no love
and has no self
So, if we believe the poem, self is both essential and not quite real. I wrote "Expression" after reading something about viruses. I wrote "Material" while reading a book on quantum physics. I use that to get at what we're made of, what we are, if anything, "essentially":
For us to consist
of infinitesimal points
makes a lot of sense.
(For a point to consist
of the array
of its own
For locations to consist
For "consist" to "consist" ...
There are a number of other poems in the book that investigate this same idea. A second theme (I resist the impulse to use scare quotes here) is the effect of human selfishness—a selfishness that is both natural and destructive. The poems dealing with that, "Live Through," "All Souls," "Control," "New Way," etc., are mostly in the third section.
I'm glad you asked me this question, actually. So many reviews of my work focus on my interest in political and capitalist language—slogans and jingles, etc. And, yes, that is there in every book, I suppose (though not in every poem), but it's not what sets the books apart from one another and it isn't my only interest.
Interesting. I feel like this answer gets at something else I noticed strongly about the collection (and that, for me, was the primary theme of the poem "Itself"): what to make of the decadence and waste of not only nature, but of language per se. So much of your work contemplates this waste—the stray or overheard remark, the figment or the ugly phrase, the leftover quality of figurative language (what isn't useful or doesn't go together). Poetry can often seem its own sort of waste, and yet the poems in the collection are, as is usually the case with your work, economical in structure and syntactically austere. Can you speak a little bit about your process with this work? Did the poems come out as compact as they ended up? Or did they come out in more of a mess that you then shaped?
Decadence—that's interesting. Can nature be decadent? In the poem "Itself," the crabs at the steam vent must be feeding on something. The image of the albino crabs "scuffling" over the "one steam vent" is disturbing certainly. There is a surplus, as it were, of crabs, and a shortage of resources—steam vents. Is an excess of one life form" decadent"? Maybe. The crabs are in the middle section of the poem, and the surrounding sections deal with human sexuality and gender. The first four lines: "I work it / until sweetness // rises / of itself" could describe either writing or masturbating. The last section depicts a woman lying beside her husband, who's clearly dreaming, and wondering what he might be doing in his dream with his "extra appendages." The scene is innocent enough or "normal" enough but the word "appendages" takes us back to those icky crabs. That's a more directly thematic decadence, if it is decadent, than what you were referring to; you were talking about linguistic excess, "leftover figurative language."
I seem to have a habit, almost a tic, of hearing what's around or just below ordinary phrases, whether my own or someone else's, of listening for surplus meaning or, on the other hand, for missing meaning. For instance, in the poem "Flo," which is partly about the series of Progressive insurance commercials staring the character "Flo," I quote Flo in a particular commercial that didn't run long. She says, "Go Big Money." This is contextualized in a way that's meant to make it sound ironic and "cool." On the other hand, if you just listen to the words, she is the voice of a large insurance company congratulating itself on its profit margin. So the kind of listening I'm doing involves both a stripping away (of context) and a focus on surplus meaning or not quite intended meaning. That might parallel the contrast between the linguistic "austerity" of my style and the poems' investment in double or multiple meanings. I never thought of it in those terms before. But, to get back around to the final, craft part of your question, I try to hone in on things, or on something, from the start. I am never really prolix. But my first drafts are messier because I don't always know what I want to include, or even really what I want to say. I have to stumble my way towards it. So I do end up taking out lines and whole sections that turn out to be unrelated or have the wrong tone.
Hmm, yes, I see your point about the word "decadence." Maybe "plenitude" or "plentifulness" might be the better word—the plenitude of nature (and language) ...
I wonder—it seems you were reading a lot of books about science and about geologic history while you were composing these poems (your epigraph, for instance, comes from Elizabeth Kolbert's terrifying book The Sixth Extinction). Science generally attempts to make sense of the mess—or of the plenitude—of nature, and yet there can be in scientific explanations a profound lack of sense, a difficult sensation of cosmic randomness or chance. What initially drew you to write poems based on these books?
My attraction to science goes back a long way. There's a poem about cosmology in my very first book. I think this is connected to the fact that I was raised by a fundamentalist mother so I grew up on the King James Bible and, therefore, with intriguing utterances like, "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light," or "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Those lines provoked in me an interest both in philosophy and cosmology. For one thing, what is the difference between being with something and being that thing? How much overlap does that entail? What is a thing? What if that "thing" is God?? And then there were the old questions which were new to me when I first thought of them—what was God doing before he created the universe? Does the universe end? What does it mean for space to end? So my exposure to religion made me ask the big questions that used to be the province of philosophy and are now more and more the province of science. I just read a book, for instance, (Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser) about the question (now being debated in scientific circles) of whether space is an illusion or, if it's real, whether it is fundamental or emergent. So, anyway, I think my exposure to religion led to an interest in beginnings and endings. Plus, I longed for alternate ideas I could use to escape the literalist noose of fundamentalism. I made my escape at the age of twelve. For a long time, I've been interested in cosmology and physics. More recently I've become interested in biology and in what's happening to the biosphere. I mean, how could we not be interested in that.
It's interesting how you compare and contrast religious fundamentalism with philosophy and science. Looking at the titles in the collection, it is notable that some are very secular or abstract ("Material," "Fundamentals," "Evidence," "Difficulty") while others draw on more traditionally religious phraseology ("Eden," "All Souls," "Afterlife," "Blessed"). In many of the more religious or mystical poems, the quality of the continuation—the afterlife—is repetitive in a painful or uncanny way ('A refrain/ is a repeated phrase," you write in "Eden"; in "Afterlife," the poisoned mad hatter becomes a character in a children's book; in "All Souls," a raped child sees ghosts). This is a bit of an intuitive question, but do you feel your sense of the afterlife might be different if the biosphere were in better shape?
I don't know if my sense of "the" afterlife would be different. Not only do I find it hard to believe in personal immortality, but I also find it hard to believe that it would be desirable. I mean, you can get sick of yourself well before, say, eternity. In the poem called "Functions" I compare heaven with a nursing home. "Will I get email there? // Will I have insights // and someone / to be pleased with them? // Will that person / be faking it?"
I think you're right to suggest that there is an ominous tone to the book and that this tone comes as much or more from an awareness of what's happening to life on earth in the "anthropocene" as it does from approaching personal mortality. You can see that in poems like "The Eye," which mentions "dunes coming on / and on" and in "Exit Row," which is a bit difficult to excerpt from. It asks the question, "Do you believe in reproduction?" instead of "Do you believe in immortality?" The answer involves a plane flight as metaphor and ends with the (ominous in context) line, "Boarding all zones at this time." That's one example of my hearing surplus meanings in common phrases. Probably "boarding all rows" is the more common phrase, but I have heard "zones." I chose that version for its resonance with ecological niches or climate zones. A lot of the poems dealing with large-scale catastrophe are in the third section of the book.
Your answer makes me think of something you said in a past interview: "I think, probably, as long as there are people (so maybe not very long, then), there will be poetry, but who knows." This was in 1999. I wonder—I know the group is in no way homogenous in its intentions or results, but the poets associated with the Language movement are a generally idealistic group. Many of those who aligned with the movement started writing in response to the war, for example. When you look back on the beginnings of the Language conversation now, does it seem to you naive? Something else? How would you characterize those beginnings now, looking back?
Some of the members of the Language group had a background in political activism. Ron Silliman was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War who volunteered in prisons as his CO service and then worked in the prisoners' rights movement. Bruce Andrews was a (young) professor of political science (maybe then still a grad student) who wrote books on the rhetoric of the Vietnam War. I don't think the idea that language matters, that what you call a thing matters, is naive at all. For instance, now people are starting to use the word "oligarchy" to describe the political system of the United States. The word is appearing in print and online with some frequency. People who didn't know what it meant are learning. It matters whether you talk in terms of "income inequality" or oligarchy. Language is a lens through which we see the world. I think this may be more obvious to people now than it was in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The kind of overhearing I do, which we've talked about here, is of apiece with the concerns of the early Language movement. So, no, the basic focus was anything but naive. Some of the theorists of the movement probably made over-optimistic claims about the effect this or any other type of poetry could have on the world. The claim was made that the "New Sentence" prose poem modeled a truly democratic/egalitarian society in words. And arguably it did, but its effect was never felt beyond its small readership. Still, everyone does what they can. I don't think I ever believed the most ambitious theoretical claims of the movement. Actually, though, Language Poetry has had a sustained effect. It moved American poetry away from a too narrow, post-confessional focus on the resonant personal anecdote and towards something more open and interdisciplinary. That change might have happened anyway, of course, but the discourse around Language Poetry certainly sped it along.
"Oligarchy," "income inequality"—what are some other words or phrases you've been noticing coming into public-sphere discourse lately that were maybe too un-decorous or were euphemized before?
Things have changed since the 70s and 80s. People in general are much more sophisticated about what is now called "spin." Now pundits are spinning the spin, so to speak. They talk more about how a politician's campaign is "driving the narrative" than about that candidate's policies or character. We all know and complain about this. So phrases like" driving the narrative" and "staying ahead of the story" show an awareness of media manipulation, but it's almost a connoisseur's awareness. That irritates me, to say the least. A poet could have some fun with it though. I'm fond of the fun I had with Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market" in the fourth part of "The New Zombie" (from Itself):
Half off zombie.
The best zombie
Ha, yes—that was such a great poem in the book (I love the section "I actually say, // I'm so sick / of zombies!"). Your work is so often really dark but really funny at the same time ...
I guess thinking about this, some of the things that make your work your work: my impression is that your style (I want to say "your aesthetics," but I am not sure this would be accurate), your style has remained remarkably consistent over the years. You've spoken about aspects of that consistency here: the instinct or impulse to include over-heard language in your poems, the interest in ambiguity and nuance, the almost-haiku-like simplicity of your stanzas and lines. It seems like much of your style in inherent. Have you ever tried consciously to change your style or write in a radically different way? How did that go?
Let's see. I have written a few "occasional" poems lately. That's new for me. For instance, "Sonnet 3" in Itself was commissioned by Paul Legault who was editing a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets rewritten by contemporary poets. My first response was, "I can't do that." But I gave it a shot and I'm quite pleased with the way it came out. And more recently I was invited to do an ekphrastic poem in response to an artwork in the Guggenheim museum. Again, I thought I couldn't and then I did. It's called "Life's Work," and it was done to accompany a statue by Pawel Althamer. It will be in my New and Selected, Partly, coming out in the fall.
I've tried to write longer poems, but I find it hard to keep them going. They just end. I don't know why. Occasionally I try longer lines and that impulse sometimes leads to a prose poem. If you look at it from a bit closer up, I think (though I'm not positive) that in my recent books there has sometimes been more continuity between stanzas, longer sentences, etc. You can see that in poems like "Flo" and "Conclusion." That change, if it is a change, wasn't deliberate. I can't seem to do things deliberately. They happen or they don't. My friend Ron Silliman said recently, "You always talk as if poems just happen to you." I know that isn't true, of course. I work hard on poems. But I don't have absolute control of them.
It is superficial (but then again, the admonition to not "judge a book by its cover" is ubiquitous for a reason), but I am just so struck by the beautiful image [a spongy decorator crab that uses other animals to decorate and therefore camouflage itself] on the cover of this new book. ... As I read the poems, I kept thinking—and this was informed by the image—that the poems were like shells, formed and beautiful accretions (I am thinking here especially of "Rooms," "The Matter," "End User," "Geography," and ''The Times"—so many others). You have spoken in the past about your relationship to metonymy, and you have worked a great deal with serial forms. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to "building," to "build up"? How do you think, technically, about the way your poems so often tend to build on themselves or accrete?
I love that crab! It seemed like the perfect emblem of the way the self is built up from the non- or less-than self. Self is an accretion. The human 'I' rides on a body made of individual cells with their own more modest selfhood and on symbionts like the mitochondria that power our cells but have their own separate DNA and were once free-living organisms. And, of course, the atoms that don't care if they're part of you or something else. So we are all collages. The same thing is true at the psychological level. We have our own natures no doubt, but we are also made up of all the people who've influenced us and among those I count both parents and celebrities we've never met. The crab represents that amalgamation.
I'm not saying that I decided to compose poems the way I do because I believe the things I just said. My style isn't really intentional. But, intention aside, my poems are collages of diverse materials. They are made of voices from outside and in—and I don't think the distinction between outside and in is a very firm one. I've said this in other interviews so I'll keep it brief. I start by making handwritten notes in a journal. I jot down interesting things I hear or see, things that give me some sort of feeling. Perhaps they puzzle me or make me uneasy. Some of these notes will have an affinity for others. They'll start to clump. I'll also be writing in response to them, trying to get at what it is about them that affects me. At that point, I may decide to try noticing or finding related or similar material. For instance, I began a poem recently when I copied down the phrase "My erasures were featured" from Facebook. It had an ominous ring to it. Then on television I saw something about a guy who collected debris from car accidents to use in his art. I made a note of that. The accident shards and the erasures seemed like they might go together. Then I felt like opening the poem up a bit so I decided to look up which largish creature had gone extinct most recently. I figured that extinction was a sort of "erasure." Etc. That's pretty much how I work.
Gosh, I feel like we have arrived at a very "Armantrout" sort of place—we started with the essential and ended up with the essential-as-symbiosis, -as-collage or -as-amalgamation. This makes me think about your memoir, True (Atelos, 1998)—that incredible ending: "But now, for all my skepticism about memories, about stories, I've written an origin story of sorts, how the zebra got her stripes, how I became, well, whatever I became—a poet, a person, if not composed of these tales, then, at least, marked by them, each one more or less true." I just love that—"more or less true."
Maybe one last question to end our conversation: the final poem in the new collection, "New Way," is one of its most enigmatic, particularly the last line. Maybe, in closing, you could speak a little about this poem, this ending:
We punch our secret
code into the image
Of the earth as seen
We earmark trauma.
in a new way,
Looked at from
Nothing has happened
Just put words
after the last.
Just get out
I'll do my best. I think that, in spirit, this poem, until the last stanza anyway, is akin to Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," which is about mastering disaster or thinking you can. In the first section of this poem, the earth is a screen saver on some hand held device into which the user is typing her code. How could we be more in control of the earth (or the image of the earth) than that? And there's a glancing reference to trauma, which, if looked at in just the right way, isn't so bad, etc. So the poem is about distancing and maintaining a sense of control until the last section where the tone changes, gets more urgent. Now it seems like there's real trouble. I imagine the last line would leave a person wondering where this endangered "there" is. I'm hoping that she will think back to the place that was mentioned at the beginning (earth). Try getting off that!
* * *
About the Interviewer
Katy Lederer is the author of the poetry collections Winter Sex and The Heaven-Sent Lead (BOA Editions), as well as the memoir Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown), which was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice and one of Esquire's Best Books of the Year. She is a member of the Bennington Review Advisory Board.
Editor: Michael Dumanis
Managing Editor: Jeva Lange