If you have not had the pleasure of reading, and moreover hearing, Wagner’s poems (or had them burrow earwig mandibles into the folds of your brain), go here. Wagner’s poetry tends to alternate between silly and sharp-toothed, clipped and galloping. A bit of an over-sharer, no one writes about the body, sex and being a new mother in such bald light. No one captures the exercise of self-imposed and societal rules and no one calls out a fucker quite like Wagner. So there you go.
The poetry of Rae Armantrout on the other hand is obliterative. Terse and intelligent, she creates lines that hustle for every ounce of meaning while struggling against a puncturing doubt. Like a charismatic doctor giving you bad news, you’re often left with a pleasing Tinnitus ring after the last lines and several football field-length silences to cross before you (or I) realize what’s happened.
Whatever their surface differences in sensibility, Wagner’s curiousity and vim for the watch-fine mechanics of Armantrout’s diverse body of work and Armantrout’s meticulous and flexible approach to poetry is fascinating. Below, they discuss skirting narrative, what changes a writer’s style, and marrying science to metaphor.
Cover illustration by Colleen Michael.
I have been thinking about how you read past the sections when you perform your poems. You acknowledge in your interview with Charles Bernstein that you don’t draw attention to the section breaks (you say something like “you [the audience] won’t know this unless you read the poems, but they’re in numbered or otherwise demarcated sections”). I don’t mind that you leave out the breaks—the expressiveness of your voice makes the whole poem feel like a unified observation in performance, and I sometimes “get” your poems, at least intuitively, faster when I hear them out loud than when I read them on the page. But the section breaks do a lot of work on the page. I feel as if my work and pleasure reading your poems is in part looking for patterns and finding resonances between the sections.
Your poems sometimes describe analogues for this kind of mindwork. There is that one where a fungus looks like a penis, and you compare the penis and the fungus to fenceposts that have an invisible web between them on which dried leaves sway. The sections of your poems are like the fenceposts—my consciousness snags on the relationship between them. There is another poem where you give an “A, B, C…” multiple choice list of the reasons why everything rotates, but you leave out item A. The gap serves as a metonym for our never knowing all the ways something might be labeled, that there are limits to our knowledge. So the breaks are not just a way to get readers to connect the dots, they register something your poems say about how we think and know. We figure out that one section could serve as a sort of label for another, or vice versa, but the pieces don’t feel stuck together forever; metaphors change, everything shifts.
If the breaks are as important as I think they are, why do you not emphasize them when you read out loud? Is it a performative thing—there’s a charge generated that you don’t want to let drop by pausing too long? Possibly when you perform you occupy a position with regard to the poems that mimics the reader’s—your voice does some of the connecting work, it makes the web visible. And maybe the fact that you have a particular point of view that the poems manifest is more emphasized when you read out loud. I guess this is a question about how you think about how subjectivity works in your writing, and whether it works differently when you perform.
Also I’d be curious about anything you had to say about your reading style, whether you used to be bad at reading and got better.
I very much like your description of the way the section breaks function in my poems. They mark the places where relationship is complex and problematic. I tend to indicate moments of doubt and difference with a silence which gets rendered on the page as an asterisk or a numeral. (I see the numerals as bigger separations than the asterisks, by the way.) But I think we find ways to jump over gaps and find connections anyway. We certainly do that in life and I hope a reader will do it (or try to do it) in my poems.
We see similarities, apparent identities, not to mention cause/effect relations all around us, but we know we can’t always believe what we think we see. I guess I want my poems to enact (reenact?) those charged moments of identification and doubt. It’s interesting, by the way, that one of the poems you refer to, "The Gift" in Money Shot—the one with the penis and the fungus and the web—has no section breaks in it. But it does do something like this same dance. It lists a series of things among which a (presumably false) relation can be constructed.
But how about this—everything in that poem actually “occurred.” That is, my husband thought that the second part of the poem before "The Gift"—"Fuel"—described a penis when actually I was writing about mushrooms. (A reasonable enough mistake.) Then, a few days after we had the conversation about his mis-recognition, a weird toadstool such as I have never before seen appeared beside the walkway to our door. I felt almost as if nature was saying, “You know, really Chuck was right.” And in most cultures in human history, something like that would have been taken for a sign. While I was standing there, having those thoughts, I noticed the leaves caught in the web. So there you have it.
But your actual questions were about the way I perform the poems. You wanted to know why I read through the section breaks without saying something to indicate them. I think it’s because I don’t want to ruin the rhythm. That’s true with the numerals. I don’t think anyone actually says “asterisk” when there’s an asterisk in his/her poem. And you also asked about my presentation of my “subjectivity” or attitude when I’m reading. I guess I’ve gotten more expressive over the years. You wonder whether I used to be a bad reader. I don’t know. I think my cohort and I were trying to distance ourselves from the over-dramatic poetry voice, the voice of the proclaiming bard, right? That may have led to a flatter delivery. But, in my mind, I’ve always heard different voices and tones in my work—not all of them really mine, except that I make them mine by appropriating them. Without really thinking about it, I’ve started to allow myself to speak in those voices, a bit anyway, when I read.
There’s this thing about poetry and measurement “Meant” (Just Saying):
“Poetry wants to make things mean more than they mean”/says someone//as if we knew/how much things meant/and in what unit/of measure.”
This could be taken as a slap at those who want to find metrics for everything (and you work at a university so you’ll know how metrics are taking over there and everywhere, awkwardly mashing down over the arts and humanities). I think of your poem “Accounts” (from Just Saying) for scientist Brian Keating. The title implies that there are different ways of accounting, different ways of languaging or coding. The spin states of atoms do one kind of encoding, and then there are other kinds of “accounting”; poetic language perhaps “stores” things differently. I thought the end of “Accounts” could be taken as a joke about the current fetish for metrics – God balancing his checkbook—“This is taking forever!” Do you think your new book Just Saying is responding to that current fetish? is it making a case for the value of poetic language? The last phrase in the book – “everything’s/a metaphor for sensation” might support that reading – scientific and technical discourses would be subsumed under the “everything” that is a metaphor for sensation, and then poetic language could be seen as a sort of master discourse because it at least is aware of itself as figurative.
That’s a very interesting read on the book. I certainly didn’t set out to (and wasn’t aware of) writing about metrics per se—but I see what you mean. In “Accounts” I was, of course, playing with the double meaning of that word: financial record keeping and (vs.?) narrative.
As you’ve heard, I like to read popular articles or books on physics. In physics, as I read it, there is the belief that information can never truly be lost. That sounds vaguely reassuring until you understand that what we would mean by information isn’t what they mean. But there does, from what I read, seem to be a lot of balancing of the “books” in nature where the “figures” are units of energy. Virtual particles of matter and anti-matter can pop out of nothing but only on the condition that they instantly annihilate one another. Why? What is all this juggling, all this score keeping for? Those are some questions behind the poem.
In the final section, I hear a more sophisticated speaker correcting a less sophisticated speaker by suggesting better metaphors. The more naive one compares God to a regular person balancing his/her check book (old-fashioned). The more sophisticated one supplies an alternate metaphor involving hidden accounts. Has God been cooking the books? I guess by putting what’s really impossible to know or grasp in plausible sounding but clearly inadequate metaphors, I am expressing my puzzlement.
How is the planning going for that class on science and poetry you were going to team-teach? Maybe you’re already teaching it. How do you deal with the differences between scientific and poetic discourse? Is that the subject of the class?
The class, if it gets approved, will be called Poetry for Physicists and I will team teach it with Brian Keating (to whom “Accounts” is dedicated) in the spring of next year. In fact, it will probably be the last course I will teach as a regular faculty member since I mean to retire in June of 2014.
Anyway, the class won’t really be about teaching poetry to science students—or not only that. It started when Brian and I were talking about how both scientists and artists are wont to invoke the idea of beauty. The famous physicist Paul Dirac said, “These equations are so beautiful they must be true.” And, of course, Keats said, “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.” Those are radical claims. So the class might start out by asking what these people mean by “beauty”? Is it the same thing? Does it have to do with the compression of a lot of data into a brief, sleek formulation. I think that’s something that has been of value to mathematicians and at least some poets. Does it have to do with equivalencies and symmetries? Etc.
We haven’t really written the syllabus yet but it will include essays by philosophers, scientists and literary critics as well as some poetry that I hope science students will be able to enjoy. Procedural poetry that uses a mathematical formula comes to mind as one place to start.
That class sounds amazing. How about Marianne Moore!
I had a chat a week ago with Michael Clune, who like me loves your work; he said he thought it had changed a lot at some point. I wonder whether you can identify a major transformative point in your work, a time when you started writing differently, and what that was associated with if so. I wasn’t sure I agreed with him—I think there are more commonalities than differences across the books—but when I looked through I wondered whether maybe around Necromance, into Made to Seem and The Pretext, maybe there is a difference there from the earlier work that persists into the newer work.
If I were to try to isolate something that changed, I’d say you had in some of the early work a tendency to make a single gesture and that in later poems you almost always resist this, you qualify whatever is said. Here are some early poems I thought of, from Extremities—the one about narrative (“Anti-Short Story”): A girl is running. Don’t tell me/‘She’s running for her bus.’//All that aside!”, and the one about the moon (“View”): “Not the city lights. We want//-the moon-//The Moon/none of our own doing!”) (“Dusk”): “spider on the cold expanse/of glass, three stories high/rests intently/and so purely alone.//I’m not like that!”
These are marvellous poems, I love them, and it’s not like they aren’t complex gestures, where some of the rhetorical work is done in the form (especially the spacing)—but they do feel more gathered into a single leap than the later work, which never just leaps in one direction. Any thoughts on how you think your work has changed/evolved and what led to that?
Yes, Marianne Moore would be a great poet to include. And speaking of Michael Clune, I’ve been reading his new book Writing Against Time on the way poems and novels try to alter the flow of neurobiological time. A chapter from that might very well make its way into the class. Anyway, I would say he’s right.
I think my work does become a bit more complex perhaps starting with Necromance. Actually, I think I made that personal breakthrough at some point while writing Precedence, probably in the poem “Through Walls.” Anyway, what I’d be interested in hearing is whether people perceive a difference between my more recent books. I don’t mean a stylistic difference but something else. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I feel as if I couldn’t just plunk 5 or 10 random poems from Money Shot into Just Saying and have them fit. I guess I hope that’s true. I hope they’re not just all the same.
I do think there is a shared technique across at least the more recent books, but that doesn’t mean it’s employed the same way all the time. It’s less style than strategy. I should think more about this. (Also must go back to “Through Walls” and see what I can glean about the breakthrough.)
Associated question: I think your books started coming out faster after 2000? Your first two books came out a year apart – but then Precedence (1985) six years later, Necromance (1991) six years after that, Made to Seem (1995) four years later and The Pretext six years later. Whoops, I am editing this now and seeing on your Wikipedia page writing the plot about sets, Chax 1998, which I don’t have and haven’t heard about. How’d that happen. Anyway, it goes with the general trend of speeding up publication as the years go by. Faster now, right? Veil and The Pretext in 2001, Up to Speed (2004), Next Life (2007), Versed (2009), Money Shot (2011), Just Saying (2013)—every couple years. What changed?
I’ve been asked this question several times and I honestly don’t know the answer. It must be a combination of those things. I have never had a lot of unpublished work hanging around so the speed up is real. Certainly my time was freed up considerably when my son went off to college in (gasp) 1997. And, of course, it is helpful to know that, in Wesleyan, I have a press committed to my work. But I think there is something else going on too. I used to be lazier. Or at least I used to be able to go two or three weeks without writing. Now, if it’s been a week, I get nervous. I guess I expect more of myself now. (I’ve become my own oppressive boss!) That may be partly because of an awareness that time is short.
Speaking of that early poem “Anti-Short Story”—You tell many part-stories (often they seem like dreams/parts of dreams, or little scenes not quite anecdotes) in your poems. The narrative gets halted by some self-conscious turn, where the poem turns on the moment and observes it, puns on it—“We are exchanging/futures.//Hand me the remote” (“Rounds,” Just Saying). In those three lines we’re not exactly sitting in the living room; we move through several superimposed lifeways.
In your poems there isn’t much that stays non-metaphorical for long enough for it to participate in narrative, or maybe it’s that narrative stops when a correlative is located, often through a play on words—your poems move “aside” (“All that aside!”) crabwise, associating different categories. Yet you often start with what feels as if it could be a story: “It begins as a polyp” (“Representative,” Just Saying). Could you still think of your poems as anti-short-stories?
That’s a really interesting observation. Besides “Anti-Short Story” I have two early poems titled “Fiction”—one in The Invention of Hunger and one in Precedence. I don’t really dislike narrative. (I certainly read fiction) Ok, maybe I am a bit ambivalent about narrative. I was certainly suspicious of the family stories I grew up with—and, when I’m attempting to tell a story, I have a sense of how much I’m forgetting or leaving out. Maybe my suspicions about “true stories” have dampened my narrative impulse. I don’t think it’s really true that most of my poems begin with a snippet of narrative—but there are narrative moments in most of them. Actually, those narrative moments are probably allowed to develop most expansively when they are based on dreams. But the narrative does tend to get derailed or knocked sideways and, as you say, that tends to happen when I notice or concentrate on the ambiguities or the different possibilities of the words themselves. Quite often the proto-narrative is deflected into metaphor.
I am obsessed with metaphor, I suppose, but only in the broadest sense of the term, not metaphor as a rhetorical device—a way to describe thing A (real, stable) in terms associated with term B (illusory, unstable). I’m interested in metaphors where the two terms destabilize one another, where the possible meanings are either equally viable or equally unviable. I’m happy when a metaphor like that develops in my work. One place where I think that happens is "Dress Up" in Just Saying.
The first two sections deal with the peculiar qualities of the electron (it can be “dressed” with virtual particles). The third section describes a little girl playing peek-a-boo. It works, if it does, because I’m really interested in the electron and in the girl. One isn’t just a foil for the other. But the two have a certain reciprocity (I hope). They relate but they don’t totally overlap. To say, “The electron, much like a little girl,” would be silly.
I think metaphor is a mistake we can’t help but make—and sometimes I play around with that, like at the beginning of “Still and All” from JS, “Since we’ve grown/it’s reasonable to think/we’re shapeshifters…”
I like that way of thinking about metaphor—neither the little girl nor the electron in "Dress Up" has priority, so metaphor isn’t a hierarchical device where there’s a vehicle and a tenor, it’s more like a seesaw between the girl and electron, where the fulcrum is the reader maybe. Or the space between them is less structured than that, but charged because it asks something of the reader.
I read an interview where you talked about the weirdness of getting the Pulitzer and cameras and journalists following you across campus (“Act natural,” they said). Can you talk about recent success and how it’s changed your routine and maybe your poetry, if you think it has?
How about reading to different populations, broader populations, from those you used to read to, and when you write, knowing that the audience will be larger now—has that changed anything for you, does awareness of a larger audience come into play when you write and when you perform?
Winning that prize has given me the occasion to read to audiences I would not have otherwise encountered. I read for “The Literary Ladies of Long Beach” and I read at the medical school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were people who read Versed, the book that won the prize, because they heard it dealt with cancer. Some of those people appreciated it. A poem called “Together’ from that book, for instance, is being published in a collection of patient’s narratives put together by a doctor. Others who came to the book either because of the prize or because they heard it referenced cancer felt cheated and reacted with hostility. Just read the Amazon reviews and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s really true that, if your head sticks up too far, people will want to knock it off. Maybe I should come up with a different metaphor there. This one is too violent.
What do you feel as if you haven’t done that you would like for your poems to do? How would you reinvent your writing if you could be a different poet?
If I were a different poet, I would like to work on long projects, to keep one poem going. Recently Ron Silliman sent me an 80-page poem he referred to as “short.” I think it would be great to get up in the morning for weeks or months at a time knowing what you needed to do—to be already launched into something. That doesn’t seem to happen for me. If I were really able to wish for a miracle, like if a genie appeared, I would want to be able to put words together in combinations as surprising as those of Emily Dickinson.