Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Verse Book of Interviews

I recently got a copy of The Verse Book of Interviews: 27 Poets on Language, Craft & Culture (Amherst MA: Verse Press, 2005), edited by Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki. Published over a series of years in Verse magazine (which I don’t think I've actually seen), it includes interviews with predominantly American poets such as August Kleinzahler, Edward Dorn, Reginald Shepherd, Agha Shahid Ali, Marjorie Welish, Anselm Berrigan and Marcella Durand, John Yau, Lisa Jarnot, Matthew Rohrer, Hayden Carruth, Heather Ramsdell, John Kinsella, Kate Fagan, Don Patterson and Kevin Hart, among others. What I find interesting about this collection is precisely the fact that I haven’t heard of most of the authors, and those that I have heard of, I've only actually spent time in the work of two of them; what becomes interesting is the process of discovery. Each interview is prefaced by an up-to-date bio of each author (which is much appreciated), as well as when the interview was conducted, and when it appeared originally in the magazine. Unfortunately, it would have been nice for the book as a whole to have some sort of introduction, to give a sense of framing; of how the book was constructed, and even how interviews are chosen for the magazine. Are these all the interviews done over a particular period of time, say, when Henry and Zawacki took over Verse in 1995? Are interview subjects a result of deliberation, or happy accident (I have no problem with either)? Is this everything, or a selection of the best of a larger group of interviews?

Books of interviews are a hard sell at the best of times, especially books of interviews with poets; I'm still going through the collection (it weighs in at over three hundred pages), but there are already some fine, fine moments, and parts that need to be read more than once, and during more than one sitting; if this is the best, it is a fine selection. If these are most of the interviews the magazine has published over the past few years, it speaks very well for the magazine. One of the interviews I've enjoyed most has been with New York poet John Yau; the great strength of an interview, I think, has to be in engaging a reader who has no previous knowledge of the subject, and this interview made me want to start looking up Yau's work.
Language is a set of rules. And I guess OULIPO just calls attention to it by making a new set of rules within the set of rules that we already accept as a given. And I think that really intrigued me. Just as, you know, with a painter, it may be that you accept a certain set of rules. Just as, you know, with a painter, it may be that you accept a certain set of rules. A painting is a flat surface, and it's sort of accepted by a lot of painters. And therefore they try to figure out how to deal with this flat surface. And I always was intrigued that they just accepted this given, or that they tried to fight against this given but they also accepted it. There was this notion, I guess, when I was in college, and I think it still persists among some people, that poetry is an expression of freedom. That somehow there's no given. And I thought, "but there is a given." Why don’t we call attention to it. The given is language, first of all, so there are these rules. And then we agree that language functions in a certain way so that we can understand each other, but built within that are all sorts of sentimental codes, codes of authenticity, codes of certain kinds of emotion. And I guess in a way, I'm against that. Not that I'm against it, but I question it. So I wanted to find another way to write so that whatever was given, maybe I decided in advance what was given, and see what I could do with it. So I'd work with a limited vocabulary, like seven words or five words, and I'd keep trying to rearrange them, recompose them. That's not really different from, say, Mondrian working with red, yellow, blue, black, and white. And working with only verticals and horizontals. Yet to me his paintings are both incredibly sensual, expressive in some way, they're all sorts of things. And the emotion of them is not so easily reducible to a kind of code. I distrust the codes. (pp 182-3)
Another interesting piece was one of the last interviews with the poet Ed Dorn [see my previous post on Dorn here], conducted just a few short months before his death in December 1999, and shows some of the depth and range of Dorn's political engagements, and engagements with history, and how it worked into the body of his work; but with the expansiveness of the interview, and all the places Dorn goes, it becomes almost impossible to excerpt it without giving only a fragment of what he was talking about (you have to read the interview as a whole).
I got into Languedoc Valiorum really through my teenage experience with going through the rites of the ritual hero, Jacques de Molay, who was flayed by the church and was set up as a heretic because Innocent III—I think it was Innocent III; Innocent, that's very, very funny. At least the Huns had a sense of their own importance. They'd be like so-and-so the Momentus. That's cool, you know. But Innocent? Anyway, deeming someone a heretic was an excuse for seizing the property of the Knights of the Temple, the Knights Templar, and so Jacques de Molay was singled out. He was tortured hideously, and finally he was flayed; this is while alive, of course—that was the ultimate treatment of the heretic. And he was drawn and quartered, and his body was utterly taken care of. Jacques de Molay wasn't the only knight to be tortured; he just suffered the most spectacular and sentimental torture. And death through torture: very, very slow. That's why the stations in the Masonic temple are so developed. You wear robes and you memorize your parts and you re-enact, because this is tantamount to or parallel in some strange way. I don’t think it was intended by the Church, but it is the suffering of Christ that's evoked here very strongly, at least in my mind. That's the propaganda of the Western Church, and the ultimate goal of its centrality of power. And that's why, in fact, they couldn't stand the realism of orthodoxy. And that's why they had to stay behind in Rome, to make the biggest empire that ever was, the most successful empire, which is still actually largely intact. You have to know a lot about the Austro-Hungarian Empire to understand this current heresy, and the consequences for the Serb people, who are heretics now en masse.

Anyway, what I'm talking about is essentially a high school experience, which didn’t come back to me until two or three years ago when I started reliving vividly the experience of when I was 16-18 years old. I was always rather doubtful about, well, virtually everything, because I grew up in a milieu which encouraged a lot of doubt if you wanted to survive with anything intact at all, but still I could see the point and meaning of the Jacques de Molay story. So I interposed a lifetime of learning and experience when I went to Languedoc in 1992. I used to go out after work, at the University of Montpelier (Paul Valery's university) where I did my exchange, and just wander around, and the idea just presented itself. I mean these little towns, the people, the density of the Crusade history. When the Holy Army returned to southern France, these were the most experienced military men in Europe at that time, and there was nothing for them to do. All they knew how to do was fight. They were expert marauders and wasters, and they had their practice against a really tough enemy. I mean Saladin had valiant and experienced soldiers. These were professional armies going against each other. This is not kidding around. This is not death at a distance. This wasn't a cowardly, you know, B2 bombing. This was looking your man in the eye. This was real. (pp 83-4)
And then, of course, here are two fragments of the interview with Lisa Jarnot [see my two previous notes on her here and here], conducted in spring 1999:
If you were to start your autobiography today, what would the first sentence (or paragraph) be?

"I, Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war waged by the Peloponnesians and the South." (p 202)
or, subsequently:
What's most important?

Love. Like Allen Ginsberg says, "the weight of the world is love."

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