When did you set your foot on the path of poetry? Did you feel a sudden bolt? Or did you grow gradually more passionate about poetry?
This question gives me vertigo. Dylan Thomas: I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. I'm pretty sure childhood is the place I first set foot in and toward poetry. I think I was very strongly compelled by words from the beginning—words and their interplay with pictures in books. I had a particularly strong fascination with "The Lamplighter" in Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. Leerie the Lamplighter—his cloak, his ladder, and his horse—black shapes in a blue darkness, spills of yellow-orange light transforming parts of their shapes. The contours of sound—a parent's voice—and the contours of the illustration. A double entrancement of ear and eye. The strange bridges between light and shadow, day and night—words that could speak those bridges into being.
Is there a collaborative element to your writing process and what do you think it is?
Remedios Varo said the artist is never alone because she is always accompanied by chance. I think of Emerson's figure of the lost traveler throwing the reins on the horse's neck to trust to the animal's instinct. Call it chance, instinct, influence, or intuition—there's something other than the self, something better than the regularized self—more receptive, less afraid—that accompanies us in the good work we are able to do. Robert Duncan said Writing is first a search in obedience. That sounds kinky. I experience it more in a Whitman mode: less a power structure, more a vagrancy, a diffusion, an obedience to no one thing. The submergence of self in a deeper community of atoms. Heaney speaks of "Body's deep obedience/To all its shifting tenses." To be afoot with one's vision feels like a rare and eerie form of collaboration. The very many mindedness of writing makes for odd company, memorable and elusive intersections. I am thinking again of Heaney, the very weird magic he performs at the end of his sequence, "Squarings": "When light breaks over me/The way it did on the road beyond Colerain…That day I'll be in step with what escaped me."
Do think that poetry can have an effect on everyday speech? How?
We know toxic speech, we know what it feels like to make and receive it. We know speech that desiccates, rots and dispirits. We know speech that keeps us sane, and speech that feels like madness. We live in reverberations of our own making, our own saying. We know the textures of advertising, propaganda, self-promotions, self-defenses, lies, cagy and thoughtless cruelties, etc. Let's hope poetry has sufficient opposing strength. Tranströmer: The language marches in step with the executioners. Therefore we must get a new language. I like Thoreau's idea that music is constant; it's listening that's intermittent. It's getting hard to listen well. Perhaps one of the effects poetry might have on everyday speech could be the transmission of its choice silences.
Are there poems, poets, or anthologies that have opened up or radically altered your ideas of what can be done in poetry? How did they do that?
For starters (in as-they-come-to-mind order): Dickinson, H.D., A.R. Ammons, Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas, Wallace Stevens, R.M. Rilke, G.M. Hopkins, Anne Carson, Harryette Mullen, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, James Dickey, Fanny Howe, Jay Wright, Czeslaw Milosz, D.H. Lawrence, Louise Glück, Whitman, Taliesin, Richard Wilbur, C.D. Wright, Saint-John Perse, Antonio Machado, W.S. Merwin, Tomas Tranströmer, Odysseus Elytis, Federico Garcia Lorca, Basho, Issa, The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
"How did they do that?" is a question I can't answer!
Are there aspects of painting or photography or dance or video art or music or architecture or theater or film or any other art inform your own poems or that your poems are in conversation with? If so, how?
I am always interested in reading books about painting. I like to think about the problems and strategies poetry and painting share, especially regarding the issue of attention. For fascinating insights regarding painting's power to record and ignite attention, I recommend Fixed Ecstasy: Joan Miró in the 1920s by Charles Palermo, and The Sight of Death: an Experiment in Art Writing by T. J. Clark.
Did you start off with an idea that your book grew around? Did you move away from that idea as the book progressed?
Can you build a book around a single idea? For me it was more like building around an emblem. For Weather Eye Open, that emblem was a windmill—an earthbound sailboat, something like the oar Odysseus plants in the ground at the end of wanderings. I like the tactile quality of emblem: it reminds me of Coleridge's view that a symbol partakes of the reality it seeks to render intelligible. In my new book, Green is the Orator, I think I was building around a few emblems. There is Osiris, green orator, god of dismemberment, vegetation, Lord of Love, Lord of Silence. There is the emblem of the veil or screen through which the acousmatic voice is heard. There is the emblem of a treasure house, the root meaning of the word thesaurus. There is the loom and the thread, emblems of the Oratrix, the mother, the Lady of Love and the Lady of Silence, giver of life.
Are you interested in the relationship between poetry and politics? Do you believe that your own poetry has political implications?
A former student of mine, Rebecca Calvetti, made a helpful distinction in response to this question: Instances, not issues. I look to poems because they know how to make disobedience civil, how to transmit an instance—an enactment—of human courage and integrity. I look for poems that will "do time" or "sit in" or "repatriate" if that is what is necessary to keep conscience, to create change. I am talking about the small forms of resistance and revision and sacrifice and compassion any of us can perform at any given moment of the day. Poems know how to present—make present—these instances. I think good poems are all implicitly political: i.e., kind, i.e., involved in our collective "state" of being. I am not interested in poems that want to be explicitly so, that want to grandstand or bully-pulpit or party line. I want to believe what Tsvetaeva argues in "The Poet and Time": …no one will commit—upon art, upon nature—the politician's sin: of setting up a pole of dissension on a ground of unity. I am thinking of Blake: He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. And Paul Klee: I must begin not with hypothesis, but with specific instances, no matter how minute.
Do you think that your poetry or poetry in general speaks to spiritual or religious yearnings and struggles? If so, how?
I am no atheist, but whatever spiritual strength I have rises from the negative side of zero. This means silences, alienations, dead ends. A holy day is implicated in a hollow day, and vice versa. I believe in Rilke's words, "To praise is the whole thing." I have pretty much cast my lot there. But I am wary. Much as I love his character, I police the Starbuck in me who would look past the "teeth-tiered sharks" to gaze into the "loveliness unfathomable." I am prone to it, yes, but I am prone to many bad habits in my writing.
What Kierkegaard said about Deity feels similar to what I feel about poetry: that it is present "as soon as the uncertainty of all things is thought infinitely." I often wonder about the "poetics" implied in Voltaire's quip, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." I know that there is good faith invention, and bad faith invention, and that the world is bound up in both. The first kind of invention I call poetry. The second is any religion (atheism included) that seeks to literalize and enforce mystery, to collapse metaphor into one-sided dogma, to preempt the power of imagination. That invention is literally killing us.
When writing poems, St. Anselm's prayer comes to mind like the tragic comedy of a dog chasing its tail: Let me find you in loving you and love you in finding you. At the threshold of any new poem, I also keep Robert Duncan resolution always close at hand: And for Love I stand perilously.
Acousmaticby Sarah Gridley Not a concept, much less a faith—
but coming forward from the dust, a white mare
partially bone, primarily fast in the higher field.
And was the sound of snow dissolving,
glass being blown from lips of beginners?
Where by love I mean a failing, copious
and opaque, heart without a practical power
most feeling the gives of undone.
Fountain and basin, the water penned in,
the tension to ring where the water
turns down, where the beads
are cracking our sun's white codex
in the courtyard foreign beyond
the window, plurally into something else.
When I live on the look of muteness, where I lived
on the look of happiness,
rose that was quanta—
I ask after cost—after gouge of grass
and sky, after cause
that hides its cause
in unsustainable shapes of pain,
in tempos habituating grass,
redbud trees in arriving and splitting—
accost, accost, come closer to my ribs.
Not only the understanding
has a language, be it wind
in rings of meanest direction,
or deepest remove when bluest in surface.
By memory I mean a skin: a cover
for the underworlds that we might try to breathe,
or hear in wind a single,
or hear of wind a kindred displacement—
in our skins to the added
subtractions we live in, sun over sand, the coppered hem-
wetness, sun in tons of bells, in apples cut open
to disappear—yes, now I am listening
to your fallible sounds
pity for the you that is stranded,
pity for the you that is only
a voice, where now I am hearing
a mechanical click
to see I had no beautiful shelter
the motioning colors of the trees, the edgewise
pit before beginning
to take up listening
as something harder, to take up
walking as something longer
attach me, walking, attach me
* * *
"Acousmatic" originally appeared in jubilat. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.