K. Silem Mohammad
In what ways might you consider yourself an American poet?
First, by recognizing the validity of the designation and accepting it. By acknowledging that I have no choice in the matter, even if I were to go ex-pat like Pound or Stein (that didn't keep them from being American poets anyway). Second, by admitting that in many ways I'm at home in the role. The romance that attends all its hubris and swagger energizes me at the same time that it raises my critical alarms. Third, to get down to specifics, to the extent that my poetry is "about" anything, it's often about being American, about what being American entails. This includes how we see ourselves, how we see others, how others see us, how we see others seeing us, and so on. I'm aware that writing as an American poet, I present a certain image to other Americans and to the rest of the world. One way of handling that awareness would be to enter "best behavior" mode, to attempt to counter my Americanness by showing how enlightened and sensitive I am, how I've transcended all the bad consciousness of empire, traded it in for progressive enlightenment. But I haven't, as much as I'd like to have. Like most Americans, I'm addicted to the privilege that living here confers on me. I'm not even close to giving it up. I try to be honest about that by allowing my poetry to reflect as accurately as possible the cynicism, optimism, confused terror, decadence, infantilism, bravado, nausea, and euphoria that are part of so many Americans' experience.
Do you believe there is anything specifically American about American poetry past and present? Is there American poetry in the sense that there is said to be American painting or American film?
Certainly. American poetry is as distinctively American as any other art form you can name. One thing this means is that, like American film, it's both profoundly innovative and resolutely superficial. The great American poems, like the great American movies, are ones that ring with a confident hollowness, with the windy echo of borrowed rhetoric, at the same time that they change the meaning of that rhetoric for everyone else forever. American poetry is built on the destruction and re-imagining of traditions, and as such, it's as violent and heroic as American militarism. It has the same relation to technology, to social upheaval, to entrepreneurial economics, to marketing. It's like a big crass billboard in front of a field of wheat—beautiful and tasteless in that way. It replaces the landscape with an infomercial about the landscape, replaces the motherly love with the artwork on a box of disposable diapers. When it's most brilliant and successful, it does this like a martyr going to the stake—a martyr who thinks she'll be rescued at the last second by commandos in a helicopter.
What role do historical and geographical factors play in American poetry and in your work specifically? What other aspects of your life (for instance: gender, sexual preference, class, ethnicity, religious beliefs) relate to your sense of being a poet in America?
I grew up in California's Central Valley, the half-Arab illegitimate child of a single welfare mother who was also the town cat lady, in a household with no car, telephone, or television. My mother dressed me funny and I didn't know how to act in public. I dropped out of high school and never did get a driver's license. With all that going against me, I still managed, by the time I was in my twenties, to enter the mainstream of American culture: I made lots of friends, went to college, secured an academic career, etc. So my point is not that my experience was special or anomalous, but that in America, specialness and anomaly are in many ways the norm, and that almost anyone or anything can be assimilated into the dominant culture. This is the power and the horror of the American condition: the Horatio Alger myth as both dream and nightmare. The contemporary poetry that most "speaks" to me—say, the abrasive social texts of Bruce Andrews, or the Google sculpture of Katie Degentesh—captures this manic derangement of mass ethics and aesthetics.
Is there something formally distinctive about American poetry?
In addition to what I've already said, the only thing I can think to do is repeat the old commonplace about breaking form, one of the most familiar versions of which is Ezra Pound's line in Canto LXXXI: "to break the pentameter, that was the first heave." American poetry—at least the American poetry I feel most connected to—tends to observe form in the breach. Which is not the same as abandoning form, of course, if that were even possible. The kind of breach I value is a deliberate, considered, and thus very formal breach. To quote Emily Dickinson slightly out of context, "Ruin is formal." I think a lot of American poetry is about ruin (moral, economic, national, global), and when it's most successful, it captures the formal qualities of that ruin.
What significance does popular culture possess in your sense of American poetry?
Immense significance. Popular culture is part of life, and increasingly it's the part of life that shapes our sensibilities at a deep level, like it or not. A poetics that is heavily invested in pretending that Taylor Swift, Glenn Beck, and Final Fantasy XIII don't exist is blinkered and inadequate.
When you consider your own "tradition," do you think of American poets, non-American poets? Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?
I think both of American poets (Stein, Zukofsky, O'Hara, Coolidge, Hejinian, Kevin Davies, Anne Boyer, etc.) and non-American poets (Catullus, Reverdy, Khlebnikov, Schwitters, Queneau, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, etc.). I don't find it very helpful, however, to phrase the question in terms of which "historic poets" are "most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics." I think there are a lot of "distinctly American poetics" out there, and some of them are more interesting to me than others. I'm more invested in a distinctly exciting poetics, and usually what I consider exciting is linguistic and imaginative bravery, willingness to rupture past conceptions of what counts as legitimate practice. So for me the rise of the sonnet in Italy, English Renaissance experiments in quantitative versification, Dada, the New York School, Language poetry, and so forth are all part of what I think of as an exciting tradition or chain of traditions. I'm aware that excitement is a problematic criterion—it's part of what Wordsworth, for instance, considered responsible for the atrophy of meaningful poetic sensibility, and it's perhaps the chief instrument of corporate seduction and distraction via mass media—but it's what we're wired as humans to respond to. And of course there are different kinds of excitement: physical, intellectual, metaphysical. I'm thinking of excitement in distinction to its opposite: stultification, the inducement of lethargy, especially as this effect is achieved through a contrived sense of reverence or allegiance to Tradition with a capital T.
What are your predictions for American poetry in the next century?
It will thrill and disappoint us, in that order and/or its reverse.