Before their WNC reading on May 7, Laura Wetherington and Jared Stanley, co-recipients of the Nevada Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship Award for 2015, sat down with Joliene Dexter and Doug Barrett to talk about poetry. The discussion took a lot of interesting twists and turns, and brought a number of vistas into the minds of two fine poets and fascinating people.
Doug Barrett: Laura and Jared, welcome to WNC. It’s so good to have you here. We have all kinds of questions to ask you. Joliene, would you like to start?
Joliene Dexter: I’d like to ask both of you how did your life lead you to becoming interested in poetry?
Laura Wetherington: That’s such an difficult question because I feel there are so many entry points that one can claim. Jared and I have read together a couple of times and went on a little mini-tour, and I think about this moment that we were in L.A. and someone said, “When did you first consider yourself a poet?” And I think I said, “Well, when the book came out—I felt like now maybe it’s real.” And then Jared said, “Oh, when I was fifteen.” And then we all laughed. But maybe the most appropriate answer here in Carson City is to say that when I was in middle school, I was in the seventh grade in Incline Middle School. And there was a visiting poet who came in to our English class and gave some prompts for writing poems. And whoever would read their poem, he would sign this little card and hand it over to you. So I was the first person to read the thing that I had written to the class, and he handed me this card, and it was a “Poetic License.” Now I think about that situation and I think “Gosh, that’s so cheesy,” but in that moment it really felt like a validation. So that might be one of the entry points.
Jared Stanley: I think my life in doing art started as a musician—I started writing songs. And there was one moment when I realized there was a kind of thing I wanted to do that was not going to fit into a song for a variety of reasons. And from then on I started—this was when I was fifteen—just started writing words in notebooks that made no sense. But they sounded really funny together. They just sounded strange, and it was very exciting to me that you could have a sentence and you could really do anything in that sentence, and you could string words together. And there were a lot of really strange things that could happen just by doing that. That just made me really laugh—it was kind of hilarious that you could do like when you’re growing up and you just repeat a word until it doesn’t mean anything anymore like “What, what what what.” And I think I just never stopped doing that. Like at about fifteen I just got comfortable with that.
Joliene: Are there specific thoughts or emotions that you’d like readers to experience from your poems?
Jared: The notion of freedom is not talked about enough, I think, in art today. About all we talk about is the way that we’re constrained. And, tracing back to the answer I just gave, I think there’s a lot of gleeful rule breaking that can still be done in poetry. So in terms of thinking, I would hope that the poems are really about—there’s a theory of freedom that’s involved there. And that comes for me from reading and listening to the jazz musician Ornette Coleman, who had a theory of music which was about radical democracy. So I’ve always kept that with me. I was ruined by jazz music when I was very young. So the thought part is really about freedom. The feeling part is a little harder to describe because I’m not sure what the feelings are myself and part of what poetry does is reinforce the inability to say exactly what you’re thinking and to honor that feeling as somehow beyond language. So I don’t know if I can answer the second part. I have no idea. I have feelings. But I don’t have any idea what those feelings are.
Laura: One of the responses that I have for that question is, no, there’s no specific thought or feeling that I think my readers should experience. But the flip side of that is—I’ll answer the second part of the question—I want them to feel the freedom and maybe I would rephrase that freedom as a kind of exhilaration. When Emily Dickinson has that thing about the top of her head being taken off, right? I think that a poem, when it moves us, it opens the door to all of the possibility that we never knew about or had forgotten about. That’s how I know that there’s an ideal reader for the poem: when the ideal reader comes across the poem, they’re like “Oh!” and the door opens and they feel that kind of freedom.
Joliene: Jared, what kind of experience would you like readers to have by connecting descriptions of the landscape to everyday life of humans as seen in your “Just Like Poor Tom’s Hair” poem?
Jared: Well thank you for thinking about that poem in particular. That poem came out of a period when I was reading the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. He’s the guy who says, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” And his idea is that the world is not about stability—that the ground state of the world is change. So this is a guy who was around before Socrates and it took almost until the twentieth century for physics to catch up with that idea. That poem was written in this really sing-songy way. And poor Tom is a character that—it’s Edgar that’s the good son in King Lear and in the middle of the play he dresses himself up as a homeless, mentally ill person—he dresses himself up as someone who’s living out in the cold. And he says of his hair, “I shall elf my hairs” which means “I’m going to tangle my hair up,” because conventionally the idea was that elves were responsible for tangling up your hair. So the title is a conflation of the Bob Dylan song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and it’s “Just Like Poor Tom’s Hair.” So Poor Tom was this interesting figure because in order to avoid the politics and power problems in that play, he hides out as a crazy person who sleeps outside. And I don’t think I can tell you how that adds up with Heraclitus except that I loved the way he interacts with nature by pretending to be a crazy person because, I guess, that’s the only kind of person who would be outside in a hurricane. So I like the way that his person changed in the way Heraclitus talked about—everything being made of change. And that transformation was something he willed, but he was also transformed by it. And so that relates to landscape as being in a way that—poems are not—there’s this basic representation problem in art, right? You’re standing in front of the tree and you’re putting the art in front of the tree itself – is that a barrier to the awareness of the tree or is it something that augments and reinforces that awareness? So for me poems are sort of off to one side from experience. They’re related to direct experience and they can record or augment it. But I don’t know if I have a really consistent and solid way of saying, “My poems want people to think about landscapes this way,” because I never know what to think about it.
Doug: You have that little elegy that ends “I love it / it’s so dead / it’s straightforward.”
Jared: Right. I’ll tell you a story about that. That’s a quote from my partner Meredith and she said that about some road kill. And she said, “I love it—it’s so dead and straightforward.” I really love that word “it.” That word is really powerful to me because it’s everything and nothing. “It” is a referent that can go in all these different directions. Or it can be the transcendent “it”—it can be God, for example, or whatever transcendental idea you have about something. So every line says, “I love it. It’s so dead. It’s straightforward.” And what is it? And a poem can be very hedgy about that and it can apply to all this things you may be looking at. So I will end this horribly long statement by saying I used to have this diagram I would give my students when we were looking at classical Chinese poetry and there’s a poem here, and a reader here, and the world over here. And somewhere in the middle is the experience of reading the poem. I don’t know if that diagram is really appropriate but where you are related to the poem and the world affects how you read. And depends on the poem too but. . . I don’t know if I answered your question very well . . . (Laughter all around). King Lear! I’m a big King Lear fan.
Joliene: That’s great, there’s a lot of cross-meshing going on.
Jared: Yeah, I definitely subscribe to this notion of Eliot’s that the writing of the poem is impacted by all the experiences and memories you’re having in a given day. That’s one place I will stick with Eliot.
Joliene: Laura, in your poem called “I’m Right About Time” there’s the repetition of the sentence “Children fly out of the mouths of children . . . children fly out of my mouth and peel away . . . . We all flew from mouths.” So what message or emotion would you like readers to get from that repetition of language?
Laura: Well it all goes back to King Lear . . . (Laughter). Hmmm. There’s a repetition about children and mouths. And you know, that poem, right now, in my head is a fog. I don’t think I’ve read that poem in a really long time. But I remember having a general feeling as I was pulling it together. Normally I’ll write by long hand a prose chunk or two or three, and then kind of mix it up and turn it into some fragments, and I kind of remember feeling like it had to do something with the way that women produce. Like when we’re young we produce words, and then later we produce children. But like in my mind those two things conflated a little bit and I was seeing little children springing out of a mouth. This is the thing about the poetry when you say “What do you want people to think or what do you want people to feel?” A lot of the time I’m throwing stuff together and I think that the gap between two images or the gap between the grammar of two lines is this open door for the reader. So I don’t think there’s one set interpretation of how children and mouths come together, or how they peel away.
Jared: Can I ask how did you come to that line? Because it sounds so good and it’s so mysterious.
Joliene: I was reading some reviews about Laura’s book A Map Predetermined and Chance and I read a few of your poems on your website and that poem, especially the repetition of flying out of mouths and the peeling away stuck with me. It definitely got my attention.
Laura: Do you know why?
Joliene: Well I think part of that is because I’ve been an English tutor here on campus for ten years and so when you mention how you use grammar, or lack of grammar . . .
Laura: You want to pull out your red marker! (Laughter)
Joliene: So I wanted to know from you what would you like readers to feel with that repetition. In certain films we see a repetition of events over and over and that director is trying to get the audience to really pay attention to what’s going on in the scene. Maybe we didn’t get it the first time around so we’ve seen it two or three times. And so whenever I read poetry—not just poetry but anything—I’m searching for that deeper meaning and also when reading about fine art, because that’s my background as well, I’m looking for that and thinking about what kind of journey is the poem going to take me on. Or if I’m looking at a work of fine art in front of me, what kind of journey am I being taken on not just now from seeing that work of art, but what journey am I supposed to be going on in my mind, or say on a road trip outside when I leave the art gallery?
Laura: This is really interesting when thinking about your explanation of the poem. I don’t think that all of my poems are this way but in general I’d say that I produce writerly texts. I’m looking for a reader that will open the door and create a particular meaning and it’s not like I’m thinking about Heraclitus and King Lear. And I could say that when I was writing that poem I was thinking about teenage pregnancy and maybe sexual abuse to young children and also the way in which when we’re kids we’re hurtful to one another and we create like little bodies that we can fling. But there’s a part of me that feels like that discussion of what I thought of when I created the poem or even what I think of now if I read it again and create a different story is not as much the point for that particular poem, because that’s me sucking away your experience. . . . “I want to be your experience.”
Jared: That’s what I love about . . . because your work is really more about language . . . there’s a lot of playing games with syntax. It’s more inviting and more difficult. Because of how it requires readers who are there.
Laura: It certainly complicates my position as a composition teacher! (Laughter)
Doug: Now last year when we were talking you seemed to bite your tongue for a minute when I mentioned Mark Edmundson and his apparent dismissal of language poets.
Laura and Jared: Oh, yeah.
Doug: Would you consider yourself a language poet?
Laura: No, no. When I think about language poetry, I think about a particular moment and a particular group of people who are maybe a generation . . .
Jared: or two!
Laura: . . . ahead of me or behind me, or whatever. Maybe they were my teachers but not—I wasn’t able to be there when that whole thing was happening. And in college I studied a lot of linguistics, so definitely I think about language and how to be more descriptive than prescriptive in poems, but I think I came to language poetry after having already started that play. So I appreciated it and I think that these people obviously are my people, but I don’t really count myself as one of them. Does that make sense?
Doug: It makes perfect sense.
Laura: “I bit my tongue . . .?” (Laughter)
Doug: I don’t know—I might have been picking up on stuff that wasn’t even there. I had another question for you. I was interested when I read the back of your book that you listed Charles Altieri as someone who opened up poetry and the life of the mind for you. He directed my dissertation for a while . . .
Laura: Stop it! No way! (High fives exchanged). So we both went to Berkeley . . .
Jared: The Big C! I never had any classes with him but . . .
Laura: That guy!
Jared: An aesthete, that one. He really likes his beauty.
Laura: I remember him talking. I don’t give lectures in class but when I think about how can I better the mini-lectures that I give to students, I always think about Professor Altieri—I guess now I should call him Charlie—but Professor Altieri and the way that he would tell a story in order to get to a very specific point about this one line in To the Lighthouse. I think he was a master.
Doug: Jared, I have a question for you. You’re associated with what goes by the name of the “slow poetry” movement.
Jared: I have been at certain times!
Doug: How would you describe that? What would you say that’s about?
Jared: It was a thing that this fellow Dale Smith was trying to articulate. He’s a poet and he’s the editor of The Selected Poems of Ed Dorn that came out a few years ago from Penguin. If I can remember, I know he put out a little book about this last year. I can maybe talk about my own sense of what that meant at the time. To me there’s this issue of the pointless intensity of American culture. It’s really sensational and titillating, you know? And I guess my sense of what I was writing about—if I can even remember what I was writing about for that slow poetry thing—I was really interested in the slowness of libraries, and the sort of sense of a library as a way of encountering poems but also just encountering language, I was starting to realize was just a little bit different from how my students were engaging with language. Very slow and deliberate, and it was about this sort of calming, this very nice slowing and quieting way of going deliberately through a text.
Laura: But was he soliciting. . . ?
Jared: It was for an issue of Big Bridge, and they had asked a bunch of people to contribute essays about slow poetry. And I was writing about Jed Rasula and his book This Compost, which is about this tendency of a certain strain of American poet to want to reclaim things about history that have been buried. And I live with a historian. If I hadn’t been a poet I would have been a historian or a biologist or something slow and deliberate, something very external to the self, I think. But what I love about the poets that have influenced me the most is their interest in the past. And that comes from Ezra Pound and that being a big influence on the school of poets that I’m interested in.
Doug: Did Pound lead you to Chinese poetry?
Jared: No. How did I get to Chinese poetry? Well second-hand. It came to me through that west coast tradition—like Gary Snyder went back to Pound. But it wasn’t that early twentieth century Orientalist thing; it was more the sixties Pacific world idea. And I think slowness to me was related to a sense that speed was this external force that was making me feel very stressed out. I think especially in the last decade there was a sense that knowing history would have saved lives and money if people had really understood what it meant to go into the Middle East. And so to me slowness is about consideration. And maybe that’s all I should have said: it’s about consideration. And poems can slow you down.
Doug: Well let me extend the question. You talk about “loafing among decayed literature as a good slowness.” (Laughter) What would you consider as that “decayed literature?
Jared: Right. Well that comes from Thoreau. So when I think of “decayed literature” in my own work that I use very specifically, I love pseudo-science. I love the kinds of pseudo-science books that were published when I was a boy, so in the late seventies and early eighties.
Doug: Who would you include in that?
Jared: Well, you know, the Erik von Daniken books—on the sort of idea that the Nazca lines in Peru were alien landing strips. The Kon-Tiki books, which were about the theory that the Peruvians at Lake Titicaca were related to the Easter Islanders. Stuff that’s ultimately been sort of unproven, and then it goes into other work that’s even more interesting and wild. I have this book called The Earthquake Generation, which is about psychics working with seismologists to predict earthquakes. To me that’s actually a sort of syncretic way of working with ideas that are supposed to be the domain of a compartmentalized scientistic worldview. It’s a kind of decayed “bad” literature that you can actually get a lot out of. And for me that comes from Thoreau for sure, but it also comes from a poem of Elizabeth Bishop called “Large Bad Picture,” which is about a really crappy painting that her uncle did, which she wants to say is really great. (Laughter) Part of my poetic thing is to think about rehabilitations of “bad” or discredited knowledge ‘cause I think they’re beautiful in a way.
Doug: Last night I was reading Immanuel Velikovsky. . . .
Jared: That sounds very familiar . . .
Doug: Velikovsky says Venus wasn’t always a part of the solar system, that it was captured as a comet during the days of the first—second millennium BC . . .
Jared: I think I have this book at home.
Doug: . . . and all the turmoil surrounding this was recorded in literature . . .
Jared: Oh, I do have this!
Doug: . . . as the ten plagues and so forth.
Jared: Yes. Yes. Gosh, what is this book I have?
Doug: Ah, Worlds in Collision is the one I’ve got.
Jared: Okay. Maybe that’s it. I just got a big pile of work from the basement of the planetarium in Reno and it’s all this stuff, this huge stack of stuff. And I think that’s in there. (Oohs and ahhs all around)
Doug: Well there’s a lot of interesting fantasy you can do with that kind of thing.
Doug: It’s like Yeats and his spirits: “We have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”
Jared: That’s right. And so to me this is one of the freedoms of poetry, which is about this field of play. And to me there’s a sweet feeling about a lot of this work. And there’s a lot of conviction behind it, even if it’s ridiculous. And poetry on a certain level is something you have a lot of conviction over, even if it’s ridiculous. And I find there to be a lot of this sort of poetic—I’m also like a self-hating poet, so . . . (Laughter) There’s a lot of charm, to me in that. I mean charm in the highest sense. I don’t mean it in a patronizing way; I really think that bad knowledge in a way can be really creative.
Laura: I can’t help but think of this very long email conversation between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris. Did you read that?
Doug: Oh, yeah, I read that the other day.
Joliene: I’m not familiar with Sam Harris.
Laura: I wasn’t either. So he’s a neuroscientist who says that he came into neuroscience through philosophy or something and I guess he’s an atheist and has written several books . . .
Doug: Letter to a Christian Nation and so forth . . .
Laura: So I haven’t read his work but only as a composition teacher thinking only about the level of argument and the kind of rhetoric that was being laid out and now I’m teaching a class on race, class and gender and thinking about the ways in which a person discovers the bad knowledge in ourselves. And that’s a very painful process. And so I love the fact that you have that distance and that you see poetry as a part of that process. And when I’m thinking about Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris it seems—I haven’t read a lot of Chomsky’s political discourse and I haven’t read Harris at all, but it seems like Noam Chomsky was ready to have a conversation but was being a little bit condescending, and Sam Harris was not willing to have a conversation at all and thought that he was.
Doug: That’s a good take on it. I think Harris was out there waiting for Chomsky to incriminate himself almost.
Laura: And this was interesting too, because at one moment Chomsky says, “Here’s a passage from the text that you didn’t read of mine that answers your question.” And then Harris responds and says “I only read the one book—I didn’t read this other thing.” And Chomsky says, “Yes, and had you gone back and read the other things around it, which is what we do as scholars” (Laughter) and so Harris then got caught up in that saying “’Why are you personally attacking me?” and “That’s a logical fallacy” but “It’s because you’re not following the protocol of having an intellectual discourse.” So I haven’t thought about that as a way into poetry—I think I try to sidestep that conversation altogether in my poems. Rather than say “Here’s the good logic” and “Here’s the bad logic” or “Here’s the defunct idea that I’m going to play with,” I just put fragments together and let people create their own logic. (Laughter)
Jared: So we were talking about the language poets and the idea of the emptying out of the first person singular. To me that was a real bad idea . . .
Laura: Ow! Wait. What?
Jared: . . . Because I think you can play with that in so many ways. My use of the first person is always undermining my own authority in a really ironic way—I think. If I’m using it, I’m using it in a way that’s constantly cross-cutting. . .
Laura: But aren’t you doing that because of the awareness of the fact that it’s emptying out, right? So had those guys never existed that
Jared: I’m not saying they weren’t influential on me—I’m just saying I think that ultimately my conclusion is that . . .
Laura: Not to do that thing . . .
Jared: Yes, definitely within that continuum, and I spent years torturing my syntax so as to avoid using the first person pronoun, and I became a lot, you know—once you can do that you expose a lot of very interesting things but, you know, it’s funny that you talk about it as distance because I actually think it’s directly related to the self.
Laura: I talk about what?
Jared: Well when you were saying that I had a distance from the works that I could incorporate—the bad knowledge—because I think of that as actually a project of exposing contemporary bad knowledge as well. The thing I love the most about pseudo-science, which you’ll hear in some of the reading later, is that I love the authoritative tone when you have a crackpot talking. And it sounds like this Sam Harris person you’re talking about—this is why I hate reading Richard Dawkins ‘cause I hate that work with a passion but I love it when someone acts that confident—it cracks me up!—and I love to impersonate someone with that confidence in my work, because to me it relates to animal mimicry. It’s like a lot of people are hiding behind. . . . Like a chameleon. It’s like a moth with those huge eyes [on its wings] you know? There’s a game that you can play around the taking on of a poetic persona.
Laura: That’s the distance, though, I think. That’s the distance.
Jared: But I don’t think—I think it’s a game but I think that, yeah, maybe that’s it, maybe I—I think I don’t have a soul.
Laura: That’s not true!
Jared: But, like there’s a way in which—there’s something like—yeah!—the experience of relating to the world through the poem is this mediation, and that’s the part that’s the site of being skeptical about the self you know?
Doug: So when we get into this philosophy of the self, I seem to recall reading something from you, Laura, that took a really different tack, invoking the Buddhist idea of non-self. Do you see that as significant in your writing?
Laura: Oh, yeah—no! I mean, I am not Buddhist, so no, it doesn’t influence me in that way. Maybe you were reading a description of Annie Finch’s work . . .
Doug: That was it, yeah.
Laura: . . . And she had this amazing ethic. So Annie Finch is I think fascinating, because her poetry seems not to be entirely experimental. In my mind it seems not to be that way. But then Ron Silliman loves her, right? And this essay that she has written about how going up to the Maine woods, and spending her summers in Maine, informed the way that she thought about the self, that you could kind of empty it out and have a centerlessness and that that was actually a fascinating idea. But in terms of the philosophy of the self I think I probably resonate a little bit more with the Quaker idea. If I were going to be religious or spiritual that would be kind of the idea. So there’s this little “I,” like a little flame of an “I,” and it’s the same and it resonates within every person and so that’s kind of how we resonate with one another, so—I don’t know.
Doug: And so is there a big “I” somewhere?
Jared: The Oversoul?
Laura: I’m just a poet—I don’t think that’s for me to. . . And I think my hesitancy to say let’s talk about bad—like why I feel I don’t have distance from it is because I don’t feel that authoritative state—I need to think more in a chameleon way.
Doug: Ah, so you’re both chameleons.
Jared: Chameleons with different stripes!
Joliene: I think that’s really interesting because you’re both making readers go through their own filters of what pertains to their own aesthetic tastes and linguistic tastes and literary tastes. And that heightens the development of their own world out of the poem, which I think is really great.
Laura: Well you both write poems.
Laura: So what’s your philosophy of the self in your poetry?
Joliene: Umm . . .
Laura: That’s a hard question! (Laughter)
Doug: You warned us that you were going to turn questions back against us.
Joliene: Right. (Laughter). Well I could just tell you I think it’s the poet’s job to have readers connect with the imagery through the use of powerful language and to take these abstract emotions in a very concrete way so that readers can connect not just more with the poet but with the story the poet’s telling. That’s what I think poets do and what poetry should do.
Laura: That really connects to your first question when you were saying, “What should the [audience] think and feel. For you it’s about creating a thinking which leads then to feeling, like concretizing an abstract feeling into thinking.
Joliene: Correct. Also imagery is a huge part of what I connect with as a poet and a fine artist too. My belief about poetry is that poets should harness language in a way paring down words to their purest forms to really capture abstract feeling. How can we put emotion into something concrete with an image? To me the answer is, describe, say, anger using an image, by using language to describe that image. It’s definitely the journey to use language to do that.
Doug: So does the self come into that concept, or is it something that’s left out?
Joliene: I think it’s both, depending on the subject matter. When I write poetry I write about people I know, or don’t know and observe, and sometimes I write about my own experience, so it’s a lot of looking out of my world, or looking into my world if I’m going to write poems about my own experience. It’s that outer world/inner world, going back and forth between the two.
Jared: The skin, the membrane. The porousness is really essential. When you read a really good poem you can feel your own . . .
Joliene: Vulnerability, you really feel that vulnerability.
Jared: Chicken Little. (Laughter)
Joliene: Speaking more about language, do you feel poets are like those masters, of not just language, but masters of trying to describe experience?
Jared: This reminds me of a line of James Galvin’s that I love so much: “author authority / master mastery. / If I wear spectacles, am I more spectacular?” (Laughter) That’s really great, ‘cause it’s pure wit. I don’t like mastery as a set of terms. I like the idea of a guise. Mastery is not a thing that you have. I think you pretend to have mastery. I really do think poetry is a game on a lot of levels. And I think it’s an emotional game, and it’s a game that I’m completely invested in but I really am convinced that part of the reason I love it and part of the distance I think is that I really love wit. I really admire the idea that the poem is a manifestation of words used as amity. I use the word “amity” a lot. I mean friendship. The idea of friendship often involves wit and playing games with the person you love. And to me part of loving a reader is teasing a reader. And I feel very strongly and very emotionally about that. And in a way it’s a very surface-y way of living but these words “amity,” “bonhomie,” these are very important ideas to me. And “conversation.” So mastery is to me a problem - what is a reader if the writer’s a master? I think there’s a lot of good will that can happen between a [poet and a] reader, and even in poems of mine which can be very dark and very obsessed with the political world, our obsession with destroying Nevada or whatever it happens to be—that programmed in the exposing of the terrible things that happen is that you’re doing it out of the spirit of companionship and friendship and amity and bonhomie and good will. The thing behind it can be anger or rage or something like that, but the expression is in some very weird way about cheerfulness even when you’re talking about—whatever, being in a city council meeting where someone’s going to cancel all the new homeless shelters. You’re filled with rage, but rage comes out of a position of wanting to be friends with somebody.
Joliene (to Laura): So what do you feel about the whole “poets as masters” thing? What are poets masters of?
Jared: The universe!
Laura: I feel really aware that I’m part of a particular camp in poetry, which may not be language poets, but which might call language poets my uncle or father or mom. And therefore I find it really difficult to talk about poetry as one kind of homogenous group where there is either a particular mastery or where mastery is or isn’t at the forefront. [To Jared] I like what you said about if we’re masters what does that mean about the reader? But I think that there might be room for a particular kind of poet or poetry where, like what you [to Joliene] were saying about “I want to develop an image that when, not just the reader who thinks like I do, but any the reader who looks at it and understands the English language, they’ll know that I’m talking about anger and they’ll feel it. I think there’s mastery in that. I don’t think that’s the kind of poetry that I write. Well, sometimes I do, though. I don’t think I write one kind of poetry. But I don’t think—I don’t believe in history. (Laughter)
Jared: It is funny. What you’re talking about is conversation, right? It’s recognition in another person’s . . .
Laura: It’s about articulating whatever that little flame is, that little flame of the self inside of me in a way that lights up the flame of the reader. But then I have to question that because is that my own particular perspective, where I think if I articulate my singular white person womanly moment in enough specificity that it’s going to be universal for everyone? That’s questionable.
Jared: That universality thing as a critique of self—that makes so much sense to me.
Laura: Which I think goes back to Altieri actually. He might have posed that question in a way that lives with me now forever. (Laughter)
Doug: I felt that Charlie was really trying to work against the postmodern sense of limited identity. In Subjective Agency he was trying to get at ways we can validate, legitimize a more universal approach to things. Politically, I think, it’s important to do that because when you look at left wing politics throughout the nineties it’s very concerned with these identity-type issues, and in the process we punted the whole economy.
Laura: In my mind, there’s a problem there because some people are saying either/or but I think there can be a both/and. I can be an individual and also be part of a group.
Jared: If you read poetics and work that comes out of the black tradition, you’re going to get a very intense critique of universality, if you read Nate Mackey, or anybody who’s talking about that right now. The idea of universality—the position that puts the writer in is very interesting, right? This is why Nate Mackey right now is my number one guy, so if you think about Nate Mackey, he’s a person who’s very much within this idea of decayed literature, but his whole way of dealing with it is this complete shift. He’s not talking about Western literature, he’s talking about North African traditions and trying to talk about how they trace ‘em to American culture. So the idea of universality is really interesting. If you claim that a universality has nothing to do with Western culture, that’s very interesting. And that immediately puts Western culture and Western tradition in sort of a minority position.
Doug: So you’re saying that universality has to do with other cultures more so than with Western culture?
Jared: Well, that’s Mackey’s critique of the idea of universality. So when you claim that, where does it come from? It comes from Rome, it comes from Christianity and monotheism, right? And so that idea—the Catholic Church and the word “catholic” literally means “all-encompassing,” right? So for me this is why trying to deal with decayed or debunked ideas is really important because they’re ways of acknowledging that—there’s something comic to me about the universal and about claiming that with a lot of confidence. I mean, I think your point about the politics of the nineties is really interesting. I think there’s ways of thinking about how micropolitics and micro-communities can be sort of problematic in a polis that has to work in these sorts of communitarian ways. But poetry is funny because you were talking about how “I’m just a poet and I can’t really talk about that”—right? And I think there is a way where that can happen. I think there is a way for me where the poet can sort of just have a mock version of confidence to be able to talk in these ways, as long as it’s self aware and it knows what it’s doing and it’s also very syncretic—it’s taking from all these fields of knowledge. To me it’s sort of a game, again—I’m all about games today.
Laura: Yeah, so I’m writing, or trying to write, a series of poems . . .
Jared: And succeeding, from what I’ve seen . . .
Laura: . . . about a guy in the 1800s who killed his family in France, and there was a question in the courts as to whether or not he was sane, and it’s a fascinating set of documents. And I’m thinking of juxtaposing that with the United States right now and how we are or are not sane, as a kind of general populus. We make decisions in the courts that I just wonder about sometimes. But I don’t want to claim to be a ”master” of sanity—I just want to pose the question and let the reader decide whether or not this all makes sense.
Jared: Even asking the question is a position.
Joliene: How can poets make poetry fun, cool and approachable to high school students and beginning college students in order to keep poetry alive?
Laura: Well I try to engage high school students by figuring out what they’re interested in and then showing them a poem on that. When I did a school visit last month, I had them brainstorm lines from songs and then create an 8-line poem. The first place one starts is the interest in one’s own creation, and then you can follow up by recommending poets for them to read.
Jared: What did my teachers do to get me to like this? Carefully deciding poems to read: Prufrock, e.e. cummings. You can’t expect everybody to be interested in reading too abstract poetry—not for beginners. Iago’s soliloquy in “Othello” works well. And I use the Roman epigramist Martial. I’ll have students rewrite Martial’s epigrams as an invitation to deeper thinking. It goes to show that the dead have more interesting things to say—word play and humor too. I’ll have them use Martial as a model for expressing the gossip in the hall.
Laura: The idea of transgression and humor is important—making jokes in poems. “There’s something about a penis.”
Doug: Do you ever feel the burden of the past, the anxiety of influence?
Laura: Yeah, absolutely. Some of my influences are Emily Dickinson, Ann Lauterbach, Rosmarie Waldrop, Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Imean, when I first read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Ithought, Oh, I’m done. I’ll just quit writing now.
Joliene: Is the poet’s job to break new ground with language?
Laura: We like to think so—and yet you could question it. When you think about it, revolutionizing poetry, making it new, that idea has an element of capitalistic excess.
Doug: Deleuze and Guattari talk about the need for schizoanalysis, which would include poetry, to outrun capitalist innovation—but that race seems always lost. Still, you have to keep language and thought from lapsing into the hardened patterns of capitalist discourse. “But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center of corruption.” That’s Jeffers, more or less.
Jared: I love Jeffers. . . .
Doug: Altieri didn’t like Jeffers—I always thought it was because Jeffers doesn’t give the critic enough to do. So straightforward—and so alive. Ever been to his house in Carmel? It’s really cool, beautiful stonework. [Gives half-remembered directions to Jeffers’ house.]
Jared: There’s a value in not saying something new. Ezra Pound is really important to me. He’s one of two opposite ends. Today’s poetry is synthetic and uses the rhetoric of the avant-garde. There are many options; it’s not just one linear progression. This is a great period to write in, an interesting time. People should just calm down and pay attention.