by Tony Leuzzi
Part II: Phone Conversation
How are you Bob?
Well, Bruce Boone’s boyfriend is dying, so we’re alert to what is happening and trying to figure out practical things—crematoriums.
Would you like me to call you back?
No. We can’t change anything. If calling back meant Jamie was going to be okay, then sure (sad laugh).
Let’s take a look at “The Visit.” What is the story behind that?
I was goofy in love with someone—he’s “L” in Margery Kempe, and he’s all over Denny Smith. A lot of my imagination was refracted through our relationship. We took a trip to Portugal together, which was wonderfully, lushly romantic. Another time in San Francisco, we found a little scrapbook at a Japanese antique store for a dollar. It was a manga about post WWII Japan. I wrote a series of prose poems and used those images to tell my story, which was one of travel, distance, proximity, loneliness, absence and presence.
So, in a sense, you were collaborating with the creator of the scrapbook.
For some reason that scrapbook stuck. I thought about it for a long time before I launched into it and there are things in those poems that are quite specific. There’s a dinner, for example, we shared at a restaurant called Bouley that I describe–goat cheese, lobster bisque…
Section seven of the sequence.
The last half of that poem is the menu from our meal.
The second sentence of that poem is quite interesting: “The little abyss pours its soul abroad; it’s a rat William Burroughs attached wings to…”
I wonder what I meant by that! (laughs) All the way through the sequence there’s a sense of vastness and projecting emotion into emptiness. It’s a twisted quote from the Nightingale Ode: To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad in such an ecstasy!
Ah, you keep going back to those Romantic poets!
In another section I rework an old Jewish joke. Shall I tell you the joke?
Okay. The cantor of the temple—the musical director—falls on his knees before the alter, the arc. The cantor cries, “Before you, my God, I am nobody, I am noting before you.” And the rabbi sees this great display of piety, and he is so moved by the cantor’s religious fervor, that he falls to his knees and says, “Before my God, I am no one, before God I am nothing.” The shamas—the janitor—of the temple happens by, and he is so moved by the piety of these great leaders that he falls on his knees and cries, “Before God, I am nothing.” And the cantor turns to the rabbi and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
This is section ten of “The Visit.” Only there, you have recast the rabbi as a monk and a scholar takes the place of the cantor.
I wanted a tradition in which absence and emptiness were more present, though of course Judaism has a strain of that as well.
And you cast the “I” of your poem as the janitor in the original joke. It’s a poem of hierarchy.
And the “I” is at the bottom of that chain. The one most concerned with the hierarchy would be the scholar (once cantor) because he is between the low and high rungs of the ladder and is trying to buoy up his social standing.
If you want to speak to power, perhaps the best position is the lowest, a la Acker. Underneath it all is one of the themes of my relationship with “L”, our class difference.
Ah, so your struggle with that manifests itself in part through this poem?
It’s a joke about class difference and entitlement.
And yet, the joke is brilliantly ironic insofar as the punchline is “look who thinks he’s nobody.” In a hierarchical world, most of us are trying to be somebody, not nobody. You say in the first of these poems “distance is required for expression.”
Language itself is a kind of distance. You have to be distant from an emotion or an experience to speak about it at all. I mean that literally. One’s ability to speak not only creates distance but is predicated on distance.
Distance is one of the primary images here, and images that conjure up distance, such as bridges.
It’s about traveling. A journey. There’s a Basho travel journal I sometimes teach. It’s half prose and half poetry. The mobility I experienced with “L” was something I wanted to record as part of our romance. There was his distance. There were the distances we traveled together. And there was also class distance. He could snap his fingers and there we were in a nineteenth-century hotel on a mountain in Portugal. This was stunning—something I’d never experienced. I wanted this sequence to be printed alongside images from the scrapbook. It was printed that way in Rattle Moon. I want people to read these poems through the images.
You use a lot of repetitive language in these poems: absence, distance, dark and light, upward and downward, emptiness, open and close, bridges, boats, dice.
I was looking at the images of travel in the scrapbook.
In section nine you say, “You tumble onto the page like dice.”
That was a poem about my two boyfriends. At the time I took the trip with “L” I had another boyfriend (laughs). Of course not knowing where these relationships were going brought about images of chance, unpredictability, romance as a gamble…
My favorite of these poems is the fourth one. It deals with the photograph of the child on the dock. You appear to be engaging the image from the scrapbook more directly than in the others.
Oh, more than you know! A long, long while ago, I had an affair when I was a foreign exchange student in Scotland. People who know me intimately would know that I was referring to a child I’ve never laid eyes on.
So, the child who approaches you on the dock—is that the child you ever laid eyes on or are you conflating that with the image in the scrapbook?
I can’t remember if there was an image of the child. I think there was. Let me look (goes to get the scrapbook). Nope. No child in this photograph.
Wow, thank you! That poem was so vivid and I just imagined the image of the child was given to you. Rather than assuming the “stepchild” mentioned toward the end of the poem was literal, I thought you had seen a picture of a child and imagined her as your stepchild! I saw it as a “what if she were my daughter.” I didn’t realize you were thinking of your own child.
You mention rampion in connection with the child. Were you thinking of Rapunzel?
That’s where the “stepchild in the fairytale” comes from. I’m locating her in that terrain.
Are you the one putting her in the tower?
I’ll leave that to you! (Laughs).
You say, “I split into red-blue-green sloppy registration, sloppy registration and a lazy printer.” That sounds as if it comes from the scrapbook.
I wanted to bring two things to bear on each other: one is the artificial quality of the poem, and writing itself, that is the scrapbook is a physical object….Let me explain it this way. In a baroque opera. arias are full of passion and emotion, but the whole situation that brought the arias about is artificial, put together rather loosely in obscure mythological settings. There’s a huge amount of artifice combined with a huge amount of passion. In a Handel oratorio, Solomon shows his wisdom by singing first about desire and then about war, and then about sadness, and so on…and each emotional register is heartfelt and yet what could be more artificial than listing emotions. There’s a heightened artifice combined with a heightened emotional life. This is something I like—and probably always have. So, in “The Visit,” I wanted to create this tension. There’s this daffy little scrapbook, and I’m locating my own opera inside it.
Poem eight is interesting me. I’m intrigued by all of these strange equivalences. One thing is another. It’s very hypnotic.
It’s fun to read.
What were you trying to do with this poem?
It’s a fantasia on the themes of the entire poem. A musical piece using the visual elements from the scrapbook and matter from my life. The magic of image and narration is that one thing replaces another. If the storyteller did this forever, you’d be in heaven. This poem is just a riff on the idea of replacing one image with another.
There are a couple of interruptions of the flow, both beginning with “excuse me.”
I wanted to interrupt and have that be part of the poem, a tone of voice enters that makes the substitution of images less lofty: “excuse me, not this, but this…” A correction. The image accepts anything, anything can be put into it.
You have talked about the influence of Barthes on your work. I really saw this influence in the second of the poems, which reminded me in tone and subject of Barthes’s The Lover’s Discourse.
Long ago, I was influenced by Barthes’s lyrical essays, which one can find in Mythologies and elsewhere. His blending of the lyrical and philosophical.
The second paragraph is interesting. You say, “You promise what you will never give—I say to trick the distance.”
That’s passive aggression (laughs). The other person is supposed to say “No I will give it!”
An interesting list follows.
Most of that information refers to stopped time. For example, “The poem as industrial run” refers to the end of progress, the end of history. “The ornate splendor of stopped time” equals lyricism. The difference between narration and lyric poetry, the lyric as a moment out of time…
The “error” of lyricism is interesting.
What place does lyricism have or should have in poetry. But I also liked all the “r” sounds!
The last sentence of this poem is fascinating: “One term doesn’t lead to the next, it brings its contrary in unions of faint commitment that scatter again like dice.” Is this meta-commentary on the whole sequence?
I’m talking about the whole poem, the movement of the poem and the ways in which the images are connected.
Number three is interesting to me because of the power that is captured in the present tense.
This was assembled from notes I was taking at the time. “L” and I were taking a car up a mountain on the eastern border of Portugal to a town that had been a military site–it had a huge view of Spain below. We are in the car looking at this. The whole poem is like a clock. And of course I am projecting my longing into this landscape.
In number five, you write, “Everything is a hinge.”
I am talking about the way the images in this poem are constructed. Instead of linearity and forward momentum, things are hinged together; they can turn in any direction.
One time I brought John Ashbery to San Francisco State to speak to my students. A student in my class asked him what a certain line meant, a line that very likely had no denotative meaning, and John just looked quizzically at her and repeated the line (laughs). He was perfectly serious and respectful. It was a complete answer.
Many poets try to achieve transparency. However, many of these poems in “The Visit” seem to move in another direction. Would you concede that there is a deliberate obscurity in some of your poems?
My goal is to write something that has tension, porousness and interest. I’m not so sure about whether everything needs to be known or in what ways it should be known. One can know things in a number of ways. Even if I tell a story explicitly, language being what it is, people would not understand my experience. The goal of clarity—of describing what events are—is not achievable. That makes it an interesting goal for others, and sometimes it is for me. I wanted to convey my feelings of longing for someone whose presence is also a kind of absence. If I conveyed a sense of intimacy, then that is the story.
In number 11, you are working with so many striking similes, such as, “When I close my eyes I see you in lewd positions which are units of longing as tenderly programmatic as Sunday for boaters and children.”
That poem is my favorite. I like the soupiest of them. I was thinking of program music like the Pastoral Symphony: “here’s the storm, here’s the sunlight, the twittering birds.” It’s an unrelenting poem: “I miss you though are with me.” This particular romance had that dynamic, but then romance generally has that dynamic, doesn’t it?—you’re after the person you can never reach. It’s a desire for self-preservation. One’s inability to achieve self-preservation on one’s own is the fuel for romance.
The poem ends with shrinking imagery: “The sky seems lower than in my country. I see the smoke and horizon.”
I had such a hard time with this last poem, which I worked on longer than any of the others. I tried to close the sequence without closing it—and yet end it I turn away. That’s what I’m trying to do. It becomes a postcard.
You dedicated the entire poem to Kathleen Fraser. Who is she?
A dear friend of mine and a wonderful poet. She and I wrote a series of prose poems based on the same scrapbook. When she saw what I was doing she said wanted to try it out. One can find her sequence in her Selected Poems.
Let’s talk a bit about “Ten Illustrations for ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.'”
I borrowed the form of that poem from Georges Bataille. He has a story called “The Dead Man,” and each chapter occurs inside a square, so that it resembles a verbal illustration. Underneath each square is a line, a caption. It’s about a woman whose husband has died and she spends a night debasing herself in every conceivable way—and in the morning she is dead. I liked the form so much. I brought it around to resemble the tipped-in illustrations in a nineteenth-century novel, where the illustrations are wrapped around the signatures of the book. The illustrations in such a book occur somewhat randomly, so there would be a sentence from the novel below the illustration to locate the image inside the story.
The italicized sentences come from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” When this sequence was published in ZYZZYVA, I got my then boyfriend Chris Komater to surround these boxes with his photographs—close-ups of skin. Remember how hyper-sensitive Roderick is? If this ever gets to be part of a book, I’d like those images included.
What drew you to Poe?
I don’t feel related to all of Poe, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
I have extremely sensitive skin. Everything in my life happens on my skin. If I’m anxious, for example, I get a rash. I identify with Roderick Usher. His hyper sensitivity is appealing to me. I see Roderick and Madeline as Jews. Poe never says so—he says they are from “an ancient race”—and Usher can be a Jewish name. Asher is the name of one of the twelve tribes. Roderick has an aquiline nose.
All the doubleness and twinning that go through the story is interesting, and the vagaries of the story are interesting. Three or four times Poe tries to tell the reader what causes all the trouble was but he never really explains it. He never says why all of this is happening to Roderick. Maybe it’s Roderick’s weak chin, according to nineteenth century phrenology. Maybe it’s the way the stones were placed in the wall that achieved some negative relation to the cosmos. But no explanation sticks. The disintegration of the building and the ways Roderick and Madeline are involved in it—they are the building—is fascinating.
I like the building itself as a monster. Dario Argento will use a monstrous building in his horror films. I like that Roderick is a painter. I wrote an essay about the beginning of that story, comparing it to the first sentences of Bataille’s “The Story of the Eye.”
I can’t say the buried alive part sparks my imagination, but they are reading a poem and the intolerable sounds Madeline makes as she emerges from her coffin create sound effects for the poem, and that is a moment of deep strangeness, the uncanny relation of art to life. The reading of the poem seems so artificial and yet here’s this text that seethes with life—and totters towards death.
This interview took place in spring of 2009.
Robert Glück is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction, including two novels, Margery Kempe and Jack the Modernist, a book of stories, Denny Smith, and a book of poems and short prose, Reader. Glück was Co-Director of Small Press Traffic, Director of The Poetry Center at San Francisco State, and Associate Editor at Lapis Press. He prefaced Between Life and Death, a book of paintings by Frank Moore, and with artist Dean Smith he made the film, Aliengnosis. With Gail Scott, Camille Roy, and Mary Burger, he edited the anthology, Biting The Error: Writers on Narrative. He lives “high on a hill” in San Francisco.