extremely different feels and tones. Can you talk about the construction of the manuscript and what led to the cohesion of such seemingly disparate sections?
The sectioning of the book was mainly the work of my editor, Matthew Zapruder. It is not something I would have done on my own, but I’m glad he decided to organize it the way he did. This was the first time I gave an editor so much control.
When I write poems, I don’t approach them with ideas in mind but rather with certain preoccupations and compulsions that are always better left unstated and inchoate–that is, preoccupations that I am unaware of. As these preoccupations become somewhat clearer and seem to form into some sort of general “gestalt” (i.e. a book) I have to resist being too conscious of “themes” or patterns that might seem to be forming. Otherwise, I run the risk of just writing poems that are merely “about” those preoccupations rather than organic outgrowths of them.
Your vocabulary is absolutely astounding, with every poem finding the aforementioned celebration of sound and color in words. For example, the poem “Tire Manufacturers” is deliciously ridiculous in what it asks of the tongue, but then there’s also lines like this from “Shadow Government”, “In the center / sophists practicing a silken homiletic, / our fictitious sibling, our shadow / trustees in the buildings round / as dewdrops…” Where does this unique and utterly satisfying verbosity come from?
Thank you. I love the verbal richness of 16th and 17th century poets (Wyatt, Sidney, Jonson, Spenser, Fletcher, Marvell, etc.), the Augustans (Pope, Collins, Gray, James Thomson), the Romantics, and Americans like Bishop, Moore, Crane, Ashbery, Dickinson, Berryman, Williams, and Stevens.
I also love reading fantastic prose: George Eliot, Melville, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Burton, William Hazlitt, H.L Mencken, A.J. Liebling, and Emerson, for example. It is important for poets to read great prose and to practice writing sentences. I’ve been rereading the stories of Poe, which are weird and hilarious. He affects an elaborate and formal-sounding diction yet assumes this very confiding intimacy with the reader.
To go along with that, your poems embody a certain classical or romantic aesthetic. Is this Renaissance-esque environment a deliberate construct or a byproduct from the use of such arguably archaic (or at least uncommon) language or something else entirely?
I think the images from things I read get mixed up with the things I see around me. The environments of my poems are not deliberate constructs, but the way I see my own environment through language and experience. Reading, seeing, living, and dreaming are all interconnected, and all work together in forming the landscapes of poems.
Let’s have your honest opinion on pugs. You love them, right?
I’d like to punt the little bastards into the mouth of an active volcano.
No, I actually love dogs. Especially those fat bulldogs that wear fedoras and play poker. But I love all dogs. Perhaps one day I might find myself sleeping in the shadow of a mountainously large dog like the guy in Baudelaire’s “The Giantess” before it eats me up.
Your poetry can at times seem immersed in dreams, or at least possessing a dreamlike instability or etherealness. They can sometimes sound like a surrealist painting looks. Do dreams play any role in your writing? If not, what kind of dreamer are you? Is it all fever dreams? Celebrities? Teeth falling out?
I think dreams can be instructive to poets. The images and the settings in dreams switch, change, and flow into one another, as they do in poems. But you don’t have to understand a dream—you feel it on an immediate level, because of its concreteness and specificity. Likewise with poems. I’m not really very interested in the meaning of dreams. They mean what they are, like poems. I wrote down my dreams for many years, hoping something would come of it. Now I often write while nearly asleep, because that way I can just let the sound of the language carry me off in a less inhibited way. I suspect people all dream in a pretty similar way. Day-to-day life often seems to me as strange and alienating as a dream—maybe it’s somehow important for me to feel this. But don’t most people feel this way? As for my dreams—I often dream of eating in strange Chinese restaurants in the middle of the night.
There are several times in The Rose of January where you write to/about/towards younger modern poets. From the poems “The Lackadaisical Poets”, “Rose of Sharon”, and “The Problems of Poetry”, I feel like you might be concerned with the current state of poetry or up-and-coming crop of poets. Most notably, the scrapheap imagery of “The Problems of Poetry” and “Rose of Sharon”, this to close out the latter: “Listen, Poet: you can’t bring in / two consecutive pieces from the junkyard / of desire—it is a mismanaged junkyard.” You don’t have to be vilifyingly specific, but if I am accurately reading the concern these poems seem to showcase, can you elaborate on what sort of troubling trends you are seeing lately?
I am concerned about the state of poetry and young poets. I think many are afraid of unapologetically doing what poems can do in their purest state. Many poets are striving to be merely clever or quirky. Other poets seem to want to posit elaborate “projects”. Some seem intent on displaying their intelligence. Some believe they might change the world by writing poems that advocate for righteous political stances. I believe that poems do something that is totally unique to poetry. There seems to be some distrust of poetry out there among poets—the suspicion that poetry itself, poetry in its purest form, is not enough. I believe that poetry is the highest and most radical freedom. Poetry is the triumph of the imagination. It strives for precision, which is a kind of sympathy with the real, physical world. There is an ethical dimension to this striving after precision–a love for the world and for its reality that is a strong opposing force to propaganda and totalitarianism (both spiritual and political). The distrust of imagery that I see sometimes among young poets is also unfortunate.
Another thing I am concerned about is how exercised intelligent young people become about this thing that some call “the lyric I” or “lyric self”. In a good poem, the “self,” the “I”, encounters the world and experience polyphonically, and ambivalently. My friend the poet Randall Potts challenges the anti-selfists thusly: “If poetry is not the conversation between generations of ‘selves’ then what is it?” I attended a question/answer session recently in which a well-known “Conceptualist” poet took the lyric “self” or “I” to task for being a capitalist construct. I find this ridiculous and uninspiring, willfully ignorant of the way “the self” encounters and is encountered by the world in poems, and worst of all, intimidating to aspiring poets. She dismissed such poets as Rilke out of hand, accusing them of being somehow fraudulent. I found the apparent lack of skepticism among an audience consisting of graduate students and poets troubling.
My hope and wish is that poets not feel the need to construct elaborate rationalizations for what they do. The pursuit of beauty, the hope of making something beautiful and putting it into the world, is enough. I think many poets experience a sort of “Stockholm syndrome” where they begin to let the general public’s distrust of poetry rub off on them, then feel guilty and attack their own commitment to beauty for being indulgent and superfluous. They might feel there is something antiquated and obsolete and irrelevant about what we do. But we are all “of our time”, regardless of what we might think. I think that an apprehension about seeming somehow archaic or old-fashioned is what causes poets to put images and ideas into their poems that strive for a ginned-up sense of the present.
There does seem to be an increasingly aggressive attitude towards more “traditional tropes” in poetry, with many conceptualists and post-modernists (or whatever they want to be called) seeming to take their inquisitive Oulipan roots a bit too far. What started out as experiments and explorations into discovering new creativity through constraint has seemed to turn into the defamation or at least intentional sneering towards use of the self in poetry. There’s just a lot of “you’re doing it wrong” being thrown around lately, so much so in fact, that it seems poets are forgetting we’re all on the same side. Can you expand on this adversarial attitude you’ve been encountering? Where do you think it comes from? Why do you think it’s happening? Who’s helping? Who’s hurting?
Jeffrey, I’m glad you asked.
It’s important for poets to have a “you’re doing it wrong” attitude in order for poetry to move forward. But as for the specific attitudes you’re talking about—the sneering stance toward the “self” that I also alluded to above: this has always seemed to me more provocative than anything. I wonder what comes first: the compulsion to write mechanical and boring work or the denigration of “the lyric self”? When I was an undergrad in the late 80s, I went to hear Alain Robbe-Grillet speak to a group of students. He was accused of “killing literature” in the 60s. In the course of his Q&A, he denigrated the work of Dostoevsky, and I found this exciting, and it seemed to give us all something of an empowering frisson to hear the work of one of the great megaliths of literature being blasted away by an avant-garde writer. It also felt like an inside joke among clever people, and this is the very sense I got while hearing Rilke and other lyric poets belittled in the talk by the Conceptualist poet I mentioned above. What I mean is, there was something that, in retrospect, seemed very doctrinaire about Robbe-Grillet’s approach to talking about writing. And the Conceptualists’ approach seems similarly doctrinaire: as is the case with many, though not all, avant-garde movements, it is not poetry per se that is important to the Conceptualists, but rather ideas about poetry. And often rather boring ones, at that.
I’m not so sure why I am so exercised by poets like the Conceptualists, who are applying their energies and (apparently) considerable verbal skills to the knocking down of such pathetically low-hanging fruit as, for example, the AWP. But I get tired of hearing academics tell us what poetry is—especially academics who deride not only the “self” of poetry but also, treacherously, the very academy that helps them to move forward in the world. And when I hear self-described poets talking about poetry the way a middle school student might—i.e., as a feeling (“his pitching is pure poetry!”—though this is a sentiment at least coming from the heart) and, along with that, as an endeavor that has no criteria of value and/or quality (“poetry is anything you want it to be”)—but doing it without the heartfelt enthusiasm of the young, without the honest and aspirant hope that there is at least a thing in the world called poetry that can body forth and help them to understand intangibles of which they, the young, have vague notions, I get infuriated. I suppose some of it is the creepiness of it all. It is an interesting, if galling, spectacle: A person bases a critique of poetry, or worse, bases a poetics upon, among other things, the idea that poetry is somehow too self-involved or too preoccupied with exalting a “self” or personality, that poetry of “the self” (be sure never to forget the obligatory “the”) is some kind of capitalist construct; same person then advocates, at least rhetorically, annihilation of that self; meanwhile, same person is busily constructing (or “curating”), as a performative extension of this poetics, an identity that aspires (perhaps ironically, perhaps not), to celebrity and lucre and is vaguely reminiscent of someone who is about to tie you to a chair and demand the location of lost Nazi diamonds.
On the other hand, the Conceptualists are expert at a sort of preemptive, anticipatory defusing of all criticism by adopting a stance and a tone that mocks all sincerity and, in the self-annihilating manner of all hawkers of bogus doctrine, ultimately themselves. I have read an interview in which a Conceptualist declares, with a startling and keen knowingness about the state of academia today, that she will be offered a tenured position in a university within the next several years. And (may God shower blessings upon her) she probably will, promising long hours of boredom to future undergrads and MFA students. Was this declaration intended to be ironic or sincere? What’s the difference?
But I have faith in poets, and the poetics of “the self”. I also have faith in and love for the “traditional tropes” you allude to. I also have an acute awareness of the fact that I will die someday—as, I suppose, everyone does. The “self” after all, at least the self manifested in the body, will die. Poets and poetry are compelled to engage this fact, or at least the fact that the self is a mysterious thing moving about in a mysterious medium.
If I might use this forum to say one more thing to my fellow poets, I would urge them to resist the very idea of a “poetics”….There seems to be a kind of inflated posture of intellectuality in this word. And a self-limiting one.
But finally, the element that separates the poets from those who seem to try to gain from the idea of poetry a kind of borrowed glamour (and ironically, these are the very people who accuse poetry of being a capitalist construct) is the strong intuition, or suspicion, or intimation, or belief, that beauty is an ultimate good with its own intrinsic value. I know I’m not alone in the belief that poetry, like human beings themselves, will not be made into a tool or reduced to something with a prescribed use without losing something essential. The Conceptualists, on the other hand, in subjecting their audience to their grimly utilitarian and ultimately boring sermons, are sort of like preachers that would guilt us or pediatricians who would like all of us to take their bitter medicine.
How do you think the “state of poetry” affects your reaction to your students’ work, especially as undergraduates who are just starting to figure out what poetry means to them specifically? What do you tell them about how to make their art theirs?
A couple of years ago I taught MFA students in Iowa, and I was so happy to see the beautiful and challenging things they were trying out. I hoped these brilliant young people saw their time there as a time of preparation. I encourage students to view their studies as a kind of apprenticeship. I want them to give over control to language, while also being completely aware of what they are doing, what is available to them, and how that fits in to the “conversation” they are having with the living and the dead. Finally, I’d like them to practice looking at the world with a loving and penetrating gaze.
What are you working on currently? Is it poetry? How do you feel about it?
I am working on poems. I love reading and hearing positive things about my poems, and I feel very fortunate that some people feel my poems are sometimes interesting enough to comment on, but I also feel that I need to vigilantly avoid internalizing comments about my poems, or internalizing praise and then striving to write “Geoffrey Nutter” poems instead of fumbling through preoccupations and compulsions in the way that is necessary to turn them into poems.