"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Donning My “Not Ron Silliman” Hat

1. What is your sense of the poetic tradition? How far back does your particular historical sense range? What defines your tradition? Nationality, language, aesthetic posture? What aspect of your poetic idiolect or tradition most distinguishes you from your closest poetic collaborators?

Tradition. There are gaps. A short poetic “map” of traditions that have meant something to me—but wait—I’m not really talking about traditions so much as individual poets. Let’s be chronological:

(a long silence here)
Romantics—particularly Blake and Byron.
(long silence here)
H. Mullen

Of course I’m leaving a lot out. I’m leaving out some drunk poets—like Li Po and Noah who built an ark, a poetic sort of project.

2. How would you define contemporary poetic practice? (Say, the typical poem that would be published alongside one of your in a magazine where you are published.) How does this practice relate to the tradition defined above? Does poetry of the "past" (however you define the past for these purposes) occupy a different corner of your mind?

The past is past. Contemporary poetic practice, though, seems pretty boring to me if you’re reading the wrong magazines, or if you’re sitting in an undergrad writing workshop. If you’re reading most anthologies. If you’re listening to the right hip-hop, reading interesting magazines, like Carve, Typo, the Canary—then it seems pretty multi-faceted, multi- and cross-traditional. If you can smile right, get the eyes and the mouth in on the action, you can appeal to a lot of people—not just your buddies and lovers. Sometimes, though, it can suit one’s ends to adopt an adversarial countenance. I keep wanting to say something about the past, but I’m not sure if I can.

3. Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?

I frankly don’t understand most poetry I read. Really. I try to feel it. I try to internalize poets I like a lot, make them part of my mental and physical landscape. (Look at all the poetry books stacked on the floor and shelves of my bedroom and office.) But UNDERSTAND—I don’t think I do. I certainly don’t understand much blogging about poetry. You know the blogs I’m talking about. The difference, though, is that I read lots of poetry I don’t understand. The po-blogging bores me most of the time. I can feed off Clark Coolidge, regardless of how well I understand him. I can’t derive nourishment from [insert name of serious po-blogger here].

4. Are we over-invested in poetic "hero worship"? Is it necessary to have a poetic "pantheon"? How does the poetic pantheon relate to the notion of an academic "canon"? Are they mirror opposites, rivals?

For me, the pantheon is a personal thing. My own particular pantheon includes my friends—Nick Twemlow, Robyn Schiff, Andy Mister. It includes Frank O’Hara, because ANY po-pantheon has to include O’Hara. It even includes poets that Ron Silliman likes—like Joe Massey, for example. It includes John Darnielle. It used to include Wallace Stevens. It includes A.R. Ammons. It includes my friend Brian Draper, who is not a poet, but who sometimes says very poetic things without realizing it. This seems to me very different than a “canon.” I try to teach my pantheon in my own poetry classes as much as possible—an alternative to the “canon” that’s in the textbook that my students have to pay 20 bucks for (it was the cheapest one I could find).

5. Is "total absorption in poetry" benign? How about "poetry as a way of life"?

It is one of the finest things in existence. And it IS a way of life. It’s the only thing I’ve got.

6. Do you see poetry as a part of a larger "literature," or is poetry itself the more capacious categtory?

Poetry is first—everything else is a sub-genre. Poetry means making. It also means song. Shir HaShirim. I don’t believe in “Literature.”

7. Are humor, irony, and wit (in whatever combination) a sine qua non? Or conversely, is humor a defense mechanism that more often than not protects us from what we really want to say?

I think both questions are asking the same thing. I am suspicious of the word “irony” here, as I don’t know in what sense I’m supposed to take it. It seems that much of the “irony” talked about in contemporary poetry is of the Seinfeldian variety, which doesn’t seem very ironic to me. Humor, yes. Wit, yes. Sine qua non? Why do we gotta Latinize it? Humor, wit, kindness, ambiguity, maybe irony, are essential to poetry—what we really want to say is directly behind or directly in front of the tonal pose, the surfacey stuff. It’s all the same thing. But I’m one of those people who says everything the same way—friends tell me it’s hard to tell if I’m joking or being serious, as my tone remains constant. Here’s a hint—I’m almost never joking.

8. Is the poem the thing, or the larger poetic project?

I don’t understand this question. I mean, I understand what it asks, but I’m not sure it’s a relevant question. Poems are good. So are projects. Does “project” simply mean “a lot of poems that have something in common”? See, I’m not sure. Or is the larger project something greater, something tied to our lives in an extra-poetic way. I thought I was in love, and this became a larger project in a sense, and poems came from it. Scratch that. I was in love. Still am in a sense—it’s no longer contributing to my project, though. I think we should just write poems. The last time I made such a statement I was ridiculed in someone’s blog comment box about being too Pollyanna. To that person I say “fuck off.”

9. What is the single most significant thing anyone has ever said about poetry?

“I don’t get it.”

10. Which of these questions asks you to define yourself along lines of division not of your own making, in the most irksome way? How close do these questions come to the way in which you habitually think about poetry? What other question would you add to this list?

I suppose it’s question eight. Or maybe number two. These questions, like most poetry, confuse me. But, and this is key, I find delight in confusion. I like walking into a classroom, for example, and having no idea what I’m going to say about a poem until I say it. I like not understanding. While I like obfuscation in poetry, I have very little use for it in prose or critical writing. What does that say about me? I know it makes me appear simpleminded or stupid, but what does it say?


gina said...

This post moves me. Dead on.


Stuart Greenhouse said...

Wow. Right on.

I don't think I've ever said 'right on' before, but I am now, because you are.

Reb said...

My man-crush on you has just reached a new level.

A. D. said...

Nice post.

(I too have been Pollyanna-ed in comment boxes.)

Laura Carter said...

Ditto what Reb sd.

Anonymous said...

I think this post moved Gina only because I am mentioned in it.


LivingforJesus said...

How INfintely and Profoundly Poetic. Great Stuff!

Anonymous said...

"What does that say about me? I know it makes me appear simpleminded or stupid, but what does it say?"

taken in context of the post or strolled absolutely away from and out of context of the post, i adore this quote.

A. Nonymus

Pris said...

After reading Silliman's answers, this is a great take-off. I especially like your answer to question number nine:-)

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