AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY MADRID
As for my writing process, that was all bound up in Paleolithic/oral culture la-la. I made stuff up in the car or on the sidewalk, no access to pen or paper. I’d let the couplets find their own communities in my head. Then I’d siddown, write stuff up, cut, rearrange, collate, improve, fix, manage, and control. The whole time giving supreme authority to whatever versions stuck firmly in my memory… I’m simplifying the process here, but still. This is mainly how it went down.
How does this process differ from writing poems that aren’t slaves to a particular form?
I don’t know! It’s been so long since I wrote anything that wasn’t either a ghazal or a set of meaningless rhyming quatrains. I’ve become very devoted to rhythm. Not meter, rhythm. The idea of writing something that’s NOT structured strophically? Hard for me.
The title for your forthcoming book is I AM YOUR SLAVE NOW DO WHAT I SAY. The poem “What with This New Body” includes the line “You could say I haven’t the scholar’s cast of mind.” Many of the poems in the book seem birthed from the mind of a frustrated scholar. How do you see contradiction functioning in these poems?
“The frustrated scholar.” You can say that again. Twelve years in graduate school, black clouds in every direction. Having to learn how to write the crazy-clean sentences, and the whole time writing these irresponsible poems. Fantasizing that one day I’d reread ’em, see through all the code, and re-experience my 30s in a whoosh. Maybe it will happen. It’s not impossible.
As for contradiction, yes. To me, that’s the Way of the Nimble Mind. Go ahead and hate something, but then secretly love it. Or the reverse. Now try it with your eyes open.
In the book’s title poem, your speaker closes with “You IDENTIFY with Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger—but as for me, / I’m through with these wise men who smile and condescend.” Much of your book confronts (and at times, antagonizes) philosophy. Do you share the speaker’s position or do you have a soft spot for Kant, Plato, and the rest of them?
I revere the philosophers. But maybe revere isn’t the right word. Is it reverence if you’re still willing to stick out your tongue? Maybe there’s no word for how I feel. I have the same arrangement with Keats. He makes me cry. But I can’t resist quoting his bad lines. Nabokov’s too. That thing where Humbert tells Lolita on the last page of the book to “be true to [her] Dick.” That is an A#1 gaffe, and Nabokov was indignant when somebody asked him about it. Yet I revere Nabokov. There’s no other word for it.
How did you deal with having to invoke yourself in the third person at the end of each poem? At what point do the author and character versions of Anthony Madrid diverge?
Yeah, I haven’t really thought this through. I always wanna say the voice of those poems is me and it’s not. The truth is that the book is a dramatization of my inner climate, “edited for space and clarity.” Basically I walk around through life saying bold things to myself to see how I feel about ’em. They don’t come from nowhere, but neither are they my settled opinions. Except some of them are. Put your finger on some particular couplet and I’ll tell you how much I believe it. As in: what percent.
In your poem “When Cloud-Colored Light Plays on the Body’s Naked Surface,” the speaker says, “The ELEVEN DIRECTIONS are mine: north and south and the other two, and / The ones between, and up and down, and even the broken axle is mine.” Following suit the poems of the collection dart in multiple directions. What was your goal in doing this?
Bird imagery is present all throughout the collection. Why?
Oh, I came up with this idea a long time ago that if the poet really likes horses or boobs or crumbling plaster or whatever, then that poet should put that stuff into his or her poems. People underestimate this. They think you’re supposed to like poems because of the art involved, and not at all because you simply like hearing certain themes treated. But I can tell you right now: there are a hundred themes for which I am a sucker. I am a sucker, so watch me suck. And then, too, there are themes about which you can get a team of geniuses to write until they turnORANGE and I will never like the shit. Baseball. Odds of my liking a baseball poem: 0%.
What themes in your book share a chromosome with the original ghazals that inspired the collection?
Ah! There’s a very small handful of couplets in there that (to me anyway) sound just like the real thing. Straight out of Ghalib, straight out of Hafez. I’ll quote five:
Angels in the bath! But they’re not really angels; they’re merely girls.
And that water is hardly water. It is the blood in your own ears.
I HAVE her love, it’s true, but I want her friendship.
What must I do, what spell cast, to have her friendship?
Prepared for me from the Beginning was the poisonously boiling water.
Since I see I cannot avoid it, I am working up a thirst.
I am guilty; I am cause of guilt; but I am also guilt’s cure:
For whoever takes one look at me immediately feels a comparative saint.
I AM no longer cut to the heart to watch her laughing with my rival.
Any man who gives her pleasure I consider my emissary.
These couplets strike an attitude, especially that last one, that’s just so Ghalib. It’s therapeutic somehow. You feel like it’s OK: the difficulties are OK, the guilt and the envy and the dereliction are OK. Just give it a splash of oratory, and everything will be all right. It’s like when people say brave and ironic things on their deathbeds.
One of the dominant conflicts throughout is between student and teacher/tutor. How did you see these archetypes fitting into the premise of the book’s themes of authority and obedience?
See, there’s graduate school for ya. They make you read all this Foucault, and then you wind up permanently fascinated with the idea that the powerless aren’t powerless even though they think they are. Meanwhile they’re dangerous as fuck. Naturally, I work both sides of the street on this one.
What poetic project(s) are you working on these days?
Absolutely nothing. I’m not allowed to write any poetry ’til I graduate. Think June.
No more questions, just a demand: name five books that you feel absolutely must be read.
Tell ya what I’ll do. I’ll name five books from the last ten years that I’ve mailed to people more than once.
• Dan Chiasson Natural History (2005)
• Ariana Reines Cœur de Lion (2007)
• Robyn Schiff Revolver (2008)
• Chelsey Minnis Poemland (2009)
• Ish Klein Moving Day (2011)
And I reckon when Michael Robbins’ book comes out, I’ll be mailing out copies of that. Also Sandra Simonds’ new book, Mother Was a Tragic Girl. These last two poets are my friends, so my judgment of their poems is not to be trusted. Yet I’ll say it anyway: I admire them.