Interview with Bin Ramke
By Tony Leuzzi
Theory of Mind: New and Selected Poems is your tenth book of poetry in 31 years. In that time your poetry, perhaps more than the work of most poets, has undergone some fairly radical evolutions in style and conception. Can you discuss some of the more prominent changes in your work and your reasons for evolving the way you have?
Yes, I suppose the work has changed quite a lot. At first it was such an exciting experience to find language shaping itself in recognizable patterns on a page that my earliest work was just a kind of ebullient celebration of itself—and I just sort of cast-about for reasons to write—hitting most easily upon what was probably a callow version of my own experiences of the time with slight interventions to make myself sound literary. As an instance: because my family did in fact have a horse that died on Christmas Eve, and the experience was not one I had seen dealt with literarily, I played with that in an early poem. And since I am a southerner—born in east Texas to a Cajun mother and farm-raised father from the bayous of Vermilion Parish Louisiana—the things I wrote about (if not the actual process of writing) said I was a southern writer.
The volatility you identify probably has to do with my education in and into poetry. I began writing poems while learning to read Wallace Stevens (and other canonical figures, but they were new to me) under the tutelage of then-graduate assistant John McNamara at Louisiana State University. Stanley Plumly was my first official teacher of creative writing—I was in my fifth year as an undergraduate, having weaved back and forth between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and while I had then been writing poems for a couple of years I resisted any actual formal coursework. Plumly is now and was then a brilliant teacher, charismatic and commanding. He spent only a couple of years in Baton Rouge, and his assigned readings were mid-sixties midwestern at that time—which is to say, I began as a southerner having his eyes opened to the contemporary through the works of, for instance, James Wright and John Berryman, with forays into the “deep image” of Diane Wakoski. In some significant sense, this allowed me to wander among possibilities, not indebted to any particular ideology or school. On my own—and I still vividly remember picking up copies of Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar in a New Orleans bookstore—I began reading west-coast writers with little understanding but some sense of the new energy (new to me) they made available. I suppose when I was in graduate school, having followed Plumly to Athens, Ohio, I began to assimilate Ashbery and O’Hara into the mix. My point is, I had no idea where I was going, or that I was going anywhere. I was aware of poetry generally as a kind of permission to make sounds and sentences in all kinds of ways, and I would return to earlier ways of making poems (ballad stanza, sonnet, et al.) simultaneous with trying out the next new (to me) thing. In some ways this practice continues.
In terms of selection, Theory of Mind is really more of a sampling than a full, representative chunk of your poetry. It must have been hard to select only a few poems (though some of them quite long) from each book to include. What were some of the factors that went into your decisions about inclusion?
Others have complained about the selection, too. Craig Morgan Teicher, in Boston Review, made much the same point. But I have no idea what a “full, representative” sampling would be, short of a Collected Poems. The major factors that went into my choices had to do with which poems I could stand, which I could stand by. The flaws and naïve assumptions of so much of the first four books have been noted in print and in person to me and I have a hard time arguing for them. So I looked back from my current position, from my sense of what I can usefully work with now, what I can defend. I see my possible usefulness as a poet in these ways: the poem is a representation of consciousness itself, and an experiment in that phenomenon; and the poem can be a semi-secret vehicle of significance, i.e. it can say more than the poet knows in ways that readers (including the poet) with time begin to recognize and appreciate. So when I started to look again at my old copies of those early books, I looked for surprises. I found few, but what I began to value were the poems which seemed to anticipate my later concerns. If there were a minimum of embarrassingly awkward lines and images, then I included those poems in the final selection.
I have pretty much since the second book tended to work with the idea of a book as I write individual poems—that is, selection goes against the basic principle of these investigations that ultimately make individual fragments (poems) into books. But then it was my idea to do a selected, so I should have known better.
The new poems in Theory of Mind are grouped under the section heading Anomalies of Water. Water is a recurring image in many of your poems, especially in your later work. Can you discuss why this is the case?
I grew up in a sort of swampy, humid, water-infested environment that is probably unimaginable to many people; that is, on the Gulf coast. And my father’s work was often with water treatment—the analysis of waste water from the chemical plant where he worked, as well as the study and the treatment of ground water in the region—watching for encroachment of salt water into the fresh water aquifers, for instance, a job I accompanied him on a couple of times, which involved taking a boat into swamps where test wells had been drilled. I heard him talking about these matters, and I “helped” him at times, learning to do some chemical analyses with a little chemistry set he made for me. But then later I became sort of obsessed with Heraclitus and other pre-Socratic philosophers—as much because they are so little more than names, and yet they maintain a presence in even contemporary thought. The attempt of these thinkers to understand, come to terms with, the physical world around them still strikes me as terrifically exciting. Anyway, Heraclitus is credited with some interesting statements about change, about water and the shapes it takes as not merely images but instances of the constant alteration of Reality. Further, I did sort of understand earlier than some (because of my father) how crucial and terrifying our relationship with water is. Floods and famines and such. Then when I moved to Colorado twenty-five years ago I encountered the same issues inverted—western water concerns have more to do with scarcity than surplus, but are no less critical. And the fact that my roof leaks because of ice dams whereas in the south my worries were about molds and mildews and rot does not mean water in its various forms is not still the issue.
I could go on, and quite often I do. About all the clichés, about the bodies of all us animals being largely water, about the grandeur of clouds and oceans and rivers and streams.
And I do consider Anomalies of Water to be its own book, even though I have continued it in some sense in my current project, tentatively titled “Conspiracy,” which is a group of poems arising out of my thinking about clouds, those most transient of forms of water.
Richard Hugo chose The Difference Between Day and Night, your first full-length collection of poems, as the winner of the 1977 Yale Series of Younger Poets. Hugo saw in that first book poems “so honestly rooted in isolation that they suggest a man with no way of reaching others except through his writing.” Would you agree with this assessment of your work? And do you think themes of isolation have persisted throughout your books, despite radical changes in style and conception?
I suppose I do agree and that the themes have persisted, even though I cringe a bit. The current dogma is all about community, about poetry being of the here and now, there is no such thing as “transcendence”—all of which is no doubt true. I, on the other hand, grew up at a time and in a place where a certain kind of isolation was the norm, and another kind of isolation was the goal. I am moved to speak of a summer experience I had, studying mathematics at the University of Texas. It was a National Science Foundation event for high school students, in 1963, and among the things we homesick students discussed late at night was the isolated thinker versus the corporate (not the word we used) team-player. Oddly, the intervention of computing was part of this discussion—we had limited access to the school’s CDC 1604, one of those giant rooms with cables beneath the floor and amazingly accurate air conditioning, all to keep going a machine with far less power than this laptop I am typing on. But the fact that calculations were soon to become mechanized raised questions about thinking; and the value or reliability of an individual computer (the word, as used by one of the “fathers” of the digital computer, Alan Turing, generally meant a person, not a machine) as opposed to some organized group doing Big Science, was cause for consternation for us. Some of us. In some way my turn to poetry later on may have been an attempt to hold on to that Romance of the individual against the demands of uniformity and normatization that the twentieth century American was subjected to.
The individual mind is connected to the species through language, language as a sort of external nervous system. Un-selfconsciously I did begin connecting through writing, but without very much faith that the connection was strong on the other end. I believe not so much that I can only reach others through writing but that only through writing (on the physical solidity of paper, not blogs, not telephones, not texting) does that connection suggest confidence (with faith, with trust).
Some of those poems in that first book, such as “Summer 1956: Louisiana” and “To Bury a Horse in Texas” are rooted in place and, at least as far as the titles are concerned, would have seemed perfectly in context in a table of contents for one of Hugo’s books. In those early years was Hugo’s poetry influential to you in any way?
As to the poems of The Difference between Night and Day, no. In fact, had I known Hugo was to be the new reader for the Yale Series that year, I would not have bothered entering, since I thought at the time we were so different as to make entering pointless. I had given up on that manuscript shortly after entering it (and forgot it was there—the call from the publisher was quite a surprise since I really had forgotten) and was already sending out a different book when it was selected. But when I got to know Hugo the person, as well as the poems, I did pay attention, and learned some things. So his influence no doubt is at work in The Language Student, possibly in some of White Monkeys. I would say his influence would come from his letter poems, which struck me as strangely and liberatingly casual (I was caught up in formality of a different sort at the time), and The Right Madness on Skye, because he was writing those at the time I got to know him. (To know him a little. That is, he was quite guarded, and after I pestered him for a while with letters abusing his kindness he made it clear he had issues of his own to worry about. Soon after, as it happened, he died.)
But your question about the place of place in the poems is not so much connected to Hugo as it is to a kind of southernness, and just a kind of curiosity I am heir to. I am fascinated by where my students are from, what experiences of landscape, urban and otherwise, they have. I like to experience regional accents. And yet I do very little traveling. Go figure.
White Monkeys (1981) remains one of my favorite books of your work. Poems like “The Magician” remind me a little of the terse, surreal world of Gregory Orr. Was Orr an early influence?
No, not really, and I am not sure why. That is, I came to his work rather late, and always considered him far beyond me, far more established and successful in his work. I was using personal childhood experiences in my writing, but in a sense didn’t want to, thought I was disguising them, and intended to stop as soon as I had developed the skill necessary to move away, to move on toward…well, I didn’t know what. But I have always in all my attempts at poetry known that something bigger or better or more beautiful or more humane might be possible, and in some sense I felt Orr’s achievement, significant as it was and is, would misdirect me. It might have been that, in the poems I first encountered of Orr’s, the experience he used (the accidental killing of his brother) seemed so much more significant than anything I could tap into that as a writer I had to turn away.
Also, and this is moving into a different focus, there was my simple ignorance. I did not know the work of many poets, and only encountered Orr’s work late. And this is all part of an oddness about who I was at the time. My first three books were probably read, if they were read, as located in the American south, as I was. But I suspect that I was seen as a highly suspect southerner. That is, while the poems were often located in a specific place, and that place was often the south Louisiana-east Texas nexus of the Cajun Diaspora (forgive the use of the term, but it was a Diaspora, and involves a fairly horrific history), I think the poems were disappointing to those looking for some sort of southern street cred.
The poem “Eclipse” from that same collection seems, from a retrospective standpoint, to be a particularly important early poem. It’s there that one can see many of the features of your later work—fused sentences, deliberate lack of punctuation, the deconstruction of narrative, and repeated pronoun shifts. Care to talk about this poem?
I always thought it was about seeing, and connectedness. So I did play about with boundaries of sentences and of the elements of narrative (small as the narrative is). I can’t say much about the actual specific decisions, but I do know that I was caught up in a concept of seeing with such intensity that the eye itself would be seered into singularity—blinded. And I liked the notion of, the drama of, nighttime subtleties of light versus the nakedly viewed sun.
“Seeing” was from my earliest awareness a constant concern and worry for me, probably because two of my uncles were blind, one from birth, one from a childhood accident. One became a musician, the other a historian—these facts are not obvious in the poem you cite, but are part of how I think so much and often about vision.
“Syllogism” from The Language Student (1986) is a terrific poem. It exemplifies perhaps a tad more explicitly than elsewhere, your poetry’s longstanding affiliation with philosophical concepts and language. Can you talk a little about Syllogism first and then, more broadly, about how philosophical discourse has nourished your work throughout the years?
I am pleased that you like the poem. I do too, and it is rare that I continue to like any of my own writing past the first few months or minutes. The origin of this poem is in hearing a cousin of mine recite the mnemonic, “every good boy deserves favor”—I always wanted to learn to play some musical instrument and envied all who had learned, and I had been questioning her about her lessons. And for a time in my childhood milking a cow before school was one of my chores, and the changing tone of the sound of milk spraying into the bucket was part of the experience. In fact, then, the poem grew out of an intensely physical, specific set of circumstances. The syllogistic form, and the title, was part of the poem from the beginning, and in some sense was a deliberate imitation of what I thought of at the time as a habit of composition learned from Wallace Stevens’—an imitation of the form of conscious thought, always being undermined by the emotional weight of experience itself.
I read philosophy and theory, but from an amateur’s untrained perspective. Outsider philosophy? Folk philosophy? I read mathematics (the history of mathematics, and logic) with a slightly more formal sort of training, and I have always enjoyed the philosophy of mathematics and logic even without knowing much about the discipline itself. I think I can do two things well—make connections between disparate ideas or images or words; and patiently wait for connections to occur during the process of investigating. This is somehow connected to my firmly held faith in the relationship between mathematics and poetry—that both are concerned with what it could possibly mean to claim one thing is another thing, or even “like” another. And both concentrate on the difference between as a way of knowing the thing—why is one thing not another thing.
“Life Raft” from The Erotic Light of Gardens (1989) is an intriguing poem about pain, desire, and art. In the poem’s hair-raising conclusion, you ask, “what does any art consume / if not its own maker and maker’s flesh?” What does a conclusion such as this mean for a poet who makes poems? What does this say about the relationship between the creative drive, which may be partially physiological, and the body?
I have much, too much, to say about this. For one thing, the poem was almost completely a response to my watching a television documentary about Gericault. I taped the documentary off-air and watched it over and over (I still have the tape). And these things started happening in my imagination: Theodore Gericault produced this painting as a documentary, even if imaginative, even if after the fact, of a specific historical event. I became aware of it through a documentary, and then I began a poem as a documentation of my response. Questions of fact began flying around my head—questions about what a fact is or can be. The very word is derived from the word for make—from facere, which means to do or to make, just the opposite of what we usually mean by a fact, which is a thing not made, not made-up. Anyway I was also fascinated by Gericault’s nearly obsessive artistic practices of examining the body, its various parts, even those parts such as amputated limbs. When I finally saw the Gericault painting of a severed head in the Art Institute of Chicago, years after this poem, I was immoderately happy about it.
But to your question specifically: I find this conclusion, that a thing of art gets made out of the very flesh of the artist, and the physical being of the art itself, I find that exciting and promising. I am reminded of the Mass, the Roman Catholic ritual, which Catholics are bound to believe, is the actual eating of the flesh of God (the bread is transformed into the body, the Body of Christ, and the blood). Consuming and being consumed is not just the stuff of B-movies.
In “A Tree Full of Fish,” from Massacre of the Innocents (1995), you employ a strategy which is carried over into many of your later poems, namely the inclusion of quotes and paraphrases right in the body of the main poetic text. What were some of your reasons for using this technique?
I was in love with epigraphs early on, and I was and remain excessively respectful of scholarship. I wanted to be smart, and I collected bits of language which struck me as especially apt, or beautiful, or for whatever reason. I often would use this language as a starting point, or as a way to further an attempt at a poem, usually finding some way to camouflage the quote, to remove it and allow it to have been a catalyst but no longer part of the chemical construct. At some point it occurred to me a more honest presentation of the process of the poem was to leave these passages, to allow the actual engagement of the mind of the poem with the world to remain obvious. (I might point out here that much of what seems to a reader to be obscure in my work is the result of attempts at directness and clarity, leaving in all the steps.) Also I had been realizing for some time that I was not going to be a real scholar, but that I could make use of some of the techniques and attitudes of scholarship in these things that still looked like poems.
A corollary to this is an embarrassing admission: I am the only person I know who always appears to be more intelligent than he is. (This applies even if other people think I am not smart—I am even less intelligent than that, I assure you.) I grew up in a situation, which suggested I was supposed to be a good student, highly intelligent—I played the role. But I have never had confidence, never am able to argue my intellectual position in the face of opposition. I know a lot ABOUT intelligence, I know what it looks like and sounds like, and I can do that. But in the end—and here is where the use of all those quoted passages is relevant—I am always an outsider looking in, so what I have to offer is my appreciation of other people being smart. And sometimes I see connections between them that even they don’t see, but that’s about my only contribution.
“Wake” from the book of that same title (1999) is one of the longest poems included in Theory of Mind. So many of your poems are about sleep and dreaming, that I find its title interesting! The poem itself seems a bit like a collage of literary allusions that flow together and into one another like water. Can you talk a little about the composition process of this poem?
I can, and I surprise myself in this case. The composition of “Wake” remains vivid for me. It began in highly structured, formally divided sections, more or less a sonnet sequence, rhymes and all. But after a month or so of collecting these pieces I began to think I had a larger sort of thing going on than I had intended. Incidentally, I have from my earliest days of thinking about poems been semi-obsessed with Ezra Pound. Not always admiringly. But I have some notion of Pound being able to move with impunity among and through the material of consciousness, of being “aware” that the bits and pieces which fall off are part of the process (what process? life?). Anyway, I used some made-up events of my life, plus a bit of my obsessive examination of the lives of my aunts and uncles (especially my Uncle Kenneth, former merchant marine, who let my brother and me spend summers with him on the Mississippi, in a house-boat), and let my readings of Heraclitus, of Lucretius, of Pound all swirl around while I was trying to work out a form. In the end what I wanted was a singularity, I wanted everything to happen at once. The poem is intended to happen all at once, hence instead of being divided into neat sections it is all a blur, a mass of words with very little punctuation. I have only tried reading this thing through in public twice, and each time was physically taxing—I am sure on the audience, but also on me. I mean, it isn’t all that long, but I am actually not supposed to even take a breath, theoretically. And I always stumble over the quoted Greek which Pound quoted therefore I take absurdly into my moment. (“Always” as in twice, but also every time I think about it.)
I must admit I am surprised you find many of my poems to be about sleep and dreaming. You are no doubt correct, it just hadn’t occurred to me. I do not remember dreams well, at all, and go through spasmodic efforts at recalling them—notebooks beside the bed and all that. Why I want to remember them is so as to reclaim as part of experience that one-third of a lifetime spent asleep…. In regard to “Wake,” however, I was thinking about blurring the distinctions, awake and asleep, living and dead (i.e. the practice after funerals), but also the shape of water behind a boat as evanescent record of movement. Plus the verb usage of “wake” is related to “watch,” so it is about vision again, about how to see.
It’s interesting that “Wake” began as a sonnet sequence. You have mentioned before that in your apprenticeship as a poet you turned to traditional forms. And then there are the Cold Sonnets. You seem to return to the sonnet form periodically. Could you talk about your relationship to the sonnet and why this form is important to you?
I think about the “received forms” nearly constantly because they offer a continuation of the innate structure of language—of how “meaning” depends on a multi-dimensional placement of its atomic parts, of the letters contained in words contained in phrases/sentences and so on. That “and so on” takes us to one possible split between poetry and prose—whether one moves then to paragraphs or stanzas, or in some other way into units which have a history, or which appear to be nonce, newly formed for the occasion. The sonnet simply happens to be convenient in my mind for such moments. Early in my mumbling toward a poem I am nearly always tempted to round-out some set of sounds by finding a shape and calling it quits, and this can easily be at fourteen lines. I can even have fun with sounds and suggest those rhyme schemes, or with rhythms and tease out a sort of iambic-pentameter. But for me this is usually a sort of holding pattern that allows me to keep the matter of the poem I am thinking of the entire complicated etymology of “matter,” which involves maternity as well as trees alive in my mind. The other great usefulness of the idea of sonnets for me is the tradition of sequences, which means one can move outward in little quantum leaps a quantum is a very small measure into a second sonnet, a third, and onward. My experiences as teacher have an effect on all this. Primitive students often come to the writing of poems with this peculiar a-historical notion, that poems differ from prose in that poems have no formal restrictions they are accustomed to the five-paragraph essay, I suppose, which is for their prose an onerous formal restriction . But in literature classes they approach the reading of poems with quite the opposite expectation—that the poem will be recognizable and predictable visually and aurally, whereas prose is a trackless desert. My reason for mentioning this in answer to your question is simply that in my thinking, formal issues of language are always tense, full of tensions and paradoxes that provide much of the energy that poetry requires.
With Air, Waters, Places (2001), I begin to see a more forceful use of scientific language surfacing in your poems, a language that fuses with philosophical references and terms in the dazzling poem “Water.” Could you talk a little about “Water” and what some of your aims were with this poem?
I love your question, partly because it jolts me into a new view of it. The poem “Water” was, to my mind at the time I was making it, a response to stories my mother told of her family caught in a flood, and it was an attempt to consider the flooding and dissolving of the very land where she (and all my family, including me) grew up. What I mean to say is, it felt to me very personal, very emotional, very much an exposing of vulnerability. My aim was to recover some of the dignity and despair of the people of the region. But I cannot help but be fascinated by the processes: a related matter: my paternal grandfather’s house, which my father helped build, is now nearly at the edge of the Vermilion Bayou, since commercial boats plying that waterway have through their wake washed away thirty or forty feet of land during my lifetime. The hydrodamics of the river and its boats have caused the land on that side of the river to dissolve and then be deposited on the opposite shore—the river is moving; the river IS alive and dangerous.
That is to say, I was surprised because your question would suggest a more distanced, scientific approach is at work in the poem. And you are certainly correct that philosophical references and terms are all over the place. But they arose out of one of my most emotionally specific poetic acts.
“Scientific language” interests me, of course, for several reasons. One is that any sort of language connected with defined activities is fascinating: the terms associated with carpentry, or plumbing, or genetics, or hydrology. The other fascination has to do with the continuous failure of any language, any grammar, any diction, to say what we want it to say. Momentarily a new coinage seems to enable a new vision, but soon it falls into habitual uses, and begins to blur and to bleed into other ways of thinking and seeing and soon we are off looking for another, newer…word or phrase or way of being. So I do try to be faithful to the technical terminology, to how the experts understand and use the term, but as much as that I am attending to the corruption of the usage.
A student of mine in Chicago brought my attention to Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” to a comment by the character Septimus (which I quote in “Computational Origami”): “We shed as we pick up like travelers who must carry everything in their arms and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.” When Erin showed me those lines I saw with greater clarity how it is that the language of various activities can fall off, fall out of hands, then be used by us gleaners of language, us poets, who then shed—find what we do being used by others in surprising ways; and so on.
Some of my favorite poems of yours come from Matter (2004). I am especially impressed with the three prose poems “The Tender Grasses of the Field,” “Where the Famous Wish They had Lived,” and “On the Origin of Language.” Because I am so used to considering you a verse poet, one who exploits lineation in innovative ways, the amount of prose poems that appear in Theory overall surprised me. What kinds of considerations are at work when you decide to work in prose instead of verse?
Another quite intriguing question. There are times, there have been several times which have lasted months or even years, when the whole notion of “lines” and “line-breaks” seems preposterous, seems even pretentious, to me. During those times I tend to want to “make statements,” to argue, or tell stories in a kind of language that seems unavailable to me during my more lineative months and years. I don’t really know why it happens, and maybe I am wrong about this altogether since I see that I have a number of poems that switch back and forth (it does cause anguish to typesetters) between lineation and prose paragraphs. But then my “final” products are often the result of smaller pieces being joined, divided, reassembled over months and years, so those final products, such as “The Naming of Shadows and Colors” in Matter, include work from my anti-line episodes, as well as those times when it feels useful to echo, however faintly, Milton and Lucretius and Margaret Cavendish (to put it as pretentiously as possible). I think maybe an answer to your question does have something to do with my slightly pathetic hope that poetry can continue to connect with those grand moments, monumental, of the history of language. The paragraphs are from the times when I am more withdrawn into a presentness, which feels safer?
I was reading Amber Ahlstrom’s biographical essay on you. She states, “The poetry of Bin Ramke might best be described as unsettling because of its disturbing themes. Ramke’s poems offer a vision of a world characterized by empty relationships, doubt, and disillusionment…” Would you agree with this?
Yes but. Doubt, absolutely yes. But I find doubt to be a positive, engaging, even energizing condition. Disillusionment is also a source of clarity and knowledge—after all, if there was illusion, then now there is enlightenment. And as to “empty relationships,” if there is relationship then there is no emptiness—but I do know what she means. To some extent, from the perspective of my distance from most of the poems Ms. Ahlstrom had to work with at the time, I see exactly what she meant, and she was right. But I no longer think those poems were “about” relationships in the sense she probably meant but I think they used human relationships as instances of variable connectedness.
I find this an oddly appropriate place to provide a biographical note, a follow-up to something I alluded to before. Up to my sophomore year in college mathematics was my chosen medium. I mentioned earlier that my father was involved in chemistry—my older brother was an electrical engineer with NASA, my younger brother a technical writer and software tester, and many of my uncles (there were many of them) were involved in technical and scientific fields—aeronautical engineering, forestry, as well as plumbing and carpentry. All this in a generation of sisters and brothers who grew up on a rice farm, who were able to go to college at all only because of the efforts of Huey P. Long. At any rate, one of my most formative experiences was the national science foundation summer program in mathematics at the University of Texas when I studied with a famous topologist, R.L. Moore. Moore was actually most influential as a teacher, and his methods of teaching mathematics were (as I think about them decades after the fact) reminiscent of writing workshops. (I am saying all of this in retrospect—at the time I was unaware of his fame, aware only of how frightened I was of him and his methods). He and John Ettlinger would set theorems and then forbid us students to use outside help, including books; if one of us thought he had a proof, he or she would present it to the rest of the class and it would be open to discussion, oddly similar, as I recall, to the discussions I hear now of student poems in workshops. But the point I want to make is, even though I failed as a mathematician I see mathematics as essentially similar to poetry, as being “about” relationships. One can argue that mathematics and poetry are about similarity and difference, about challenging the boundary between one thing and another and about the exploration of what that boundary then does—how they reveal previously hidden connections and disconnections. And both work with “material” which is much misunderstood—mathematical objects have a strange relationship to so-called “reality,” as do the significations of words in poems. “Aboutness” is most curious when you ask what a poem or a theorem is about.
Ahlstrom also astutely notes that such themes are “put in perspective by [your] humor and sheer joy in language.” I definitely see this working through your poems. And when humor and joy are less apparent, there is always intellectual curiosity and wonder, which seems to undermine some of the alienation. Can you talk about the presence of humor in your poems?
I welcome humor, and leave it there when it happens. Strangely enough, it can arise at the most gloomy of my considerations, and usually the elements of a poem that strike me as funny are not recognized as such by listeners at readings. But I sometimes stop and point out that something I just did was funny, and THAT act will be heard as funny. What are you going to do?
How would you characterize yourself, in terms of a “school”—if indeed you feel you belong to one at all?
I don’t, but would be happy to join if invited. Quite seriously, I suspect that to the extent my work has been noticed by anyone in a position of authority in/with any school, I have somehow managed to alienate her or him. I noticed a few years ago when my name came up on Ron Silliman’s blog he did seem annoyed that the word “experimental” was applied. It was clear that he, as an influential figure in a recognized “school” of poets, wanted it known that I was nothing like a language poet—I am one of his “quietists.” But then anthologists of various stripes gave up on me long ago—I was once a younger Southern poet, but now no longer either young or southern. It may be that I am not really a poet. That sounds strange, but what I am aware of wanting to do with language is not so much making recognizable “poems” as, … something else. Something to help me engage with a world, real and imaginary, as I encounter it. When poetry is no longer able to help me do that I will try to find something else that will, and maybe that is what I am already doing, just calling these things poems for lack of a better term.
Some may call you an “academic” poet insofar as you are working from within the academy and your poems are steeped in intellectual matter. Do you see your work beyond this?
Beyond this? For thirty-five years I have taught for a living. Lots of freshman composition for a decade in Georgia, less of it in Denver, where I do some graduate teaching along with “general education” duties, but lots of fairly basic work on how to read and how to write. I am recognized in this institution for my poetry publishing, but I have only recently been involved in much exchange with colleagues about poetry itself. That is to say, working within the academy does not necessarily mean working within a supporting network of like-minded people, (whether fortunately or unfortunately). This is the situation for every writer I know of in “the academy.”
And I don’t see how poems could be other than steeped in intellectual matter. As conscious animals we are inexorably caught in a body aware of itself in a most shattering, anxiety-producing way. Since we are all pretty much in agreement that the old Cartesian split was an erroneous imagining, we are all, all of us, body-minds with varying degrees of pain to remind us of how fragile this thing is, this “self.” We do not wear our bodies, we do not live within them; we do not house our minds. So what goes on in my place of work results in self-consciousness about all of these issues. More than in most other places of work, I assume, but I would say that poetry is not much more appreciated by “the academy” than it is by “wall street” or “the fourth estate” or any other imagined and named sanctuary of similarities.
There are some poets whose work is well known outside the smallish community of university employees and small-press publishers. So there are alternatives to the situation I am part of. But I would suggest that even the word “academy” is not very useful, since so-called “higher education” in this nation is so amazingly varied, from community colleges through graduate schools. I do with language what I am able to do, for reasons I probably do not understand, and there may be moments when other people read those things I write and there is a kinship among us. That is what happens for me when I read things—poems by Nathalie Stephens, or the occasional posting that I can understand on arXiv.org, or a story by Brian Evenson—and feel connected.