“It is an attempt to create a new language.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How is it where you are? Is it a nice day?
I think it's nice. I haven't been outside, but I think it's nice. It's sunny, but it's hot. How about where you are?
That's exactly how it is where I am, but that's sort of the perpetual condition of being in Florida—it's sunny and hot. I've never lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, or anywhere hot, really. So I'm not used to the heat.
Wait, what are you doing in Florida? Do I know this?
I'm getting a Ph.D. at Florida State, so I teach and take classes.
I think I assumed you were someplace else. It's funny, you're all over the place.
Haha, I hop around. And you were just in Germany, right?
I was in Berlin for two months. It was amazing. I'm half German. I was born there, I grew up there, and I spent a lot of time there. And the last few summers I've been going back. The last summer I was in Berlin, I was there for three weeks, and I wanted to stay longer. So this summer I stayed for two months. I basically lived there. I'm in a Ph.D. program for German Language and Literature, so I was taking some language classes and preparing for my area exam. I paid for it, so it wasn't connected to the school, necessarily.
Oh, so it wasn't like a grant or anything?
No. It made sense to stay because that’s what I'm studying, but it was really for other purposes.
Were you writing creatively then? I don't know if you're someone who can go on a trip and use it in that way or not.
I can't, actually. Whenever I travel, I can't write at all. The goal was to take language classes Monday through Friday for three hours and prepare for the exam. And then what happened was that somebody put the idea into me to try writing a poem every day starting June 1st. And I started, and weirdly enough it took off and created its own momentum. And I did write a poem every single day. It was the first time in my life that I felt like—well, I've had the feeling that poems come to me, for sure, but it really was this energy where the poems were just coming. It was amazing. So I wrote an entire book of poems this summer.
And I can say that because it's not like I wasn't working hard, but the poems did come to me. I feel like it was this thing that was given to me. And the thing that happened, too—and anybody who does that kind of practice knows this—is they started talking to each other. And then everything that was happening in my life, and anything that I was thinking about started showing up in the poems. I think they're much different from my other work, but we'll see what people think.
That's awesome. I remember seeing you posting screenshots of poems for a while over the summer. I can't speak to specifics about them, but I remember thinking, "Oh, this is a cool little gift to be given sporadically."
So you have a complete book that you're sending out?
Yes, I have a complete book. I have two books coming out.
With Four Way?
Yeah, with Four Way.
And they're both books of poems?
Two books after How the End Begins?
Yeah. So it's pretty exciting.
How long does it normally take you to write a book of poems? I imagine writing a whole book over the summer is a pretty fast pace for you, or for anyone. How long did How the End Begins take to write? Or, how old is the oldest poem in the book?
Oh, that's a really good question. I don't know, to be honest. I think it usually takes me a couple years to write a book of poems, but then the oldest poems are probably four years, although I'm not scientifically sure.
When I started the Ph.D. program, I think I was writing a poem a semester.
One poem a semester?
Yeah. I just couldn’t because, as you know, it's—
It's not that school takes up all of my time, but it takes up all of my brain.
That's why this summer was so incredible. It really felt like endurance. It was almost like a physical—it wasn't a sport, but you know what I mean.
I totally understand what you're saying. We have finite reservoirs of psychic resources, as we do physical resources, as we do social resources. And I think that if you're depleting them in a rigorous Ph.D. program, you're not going to be able to apply those resources to creative endeavors.
Yeah, exactly. There's only so much space in the brain.
One way to get into talking about How the End Begins—in getting ready for this interview, I was reading interviews that you'd done in the past. And I was reading one you did with the Kenyon Review, and I was really struck by this one thing you said, "On a daily basis, I try to return myself to that clear trusting point of view I had as a child. That absolute faith in the good of all things. Intellectually, I do believe in this now." And I'm so interested in that idea—the absolute faith in the good of all things, and how it informs your poems. On the surface your poems are dealing with a lot of darker themes, and the tonal register is a little dark, but I don't think they are hopeless poems at all. I'm really interested in how you manage that duality in writing poems that don't feel hopeless, that are oriented towards faith in the good of things, but that also mine darker language. Like, "But I need the darkness / To work with."
I'm always surprised when people say that the work is dark, and then of course I read it, and I guess it is. But the way that I see it is that we are in dark times. I've lost track of how many wars we're in. And the majority of Americans are struggling financially. My family is living in poverty. Many people in America are living in poverty. There's a drug epidemic. There's— it's just endless, you know. That is the reality. And I see that. I see it in my friends, and my students, and on the streets. In TV and movies. It's everywhere. To write about it is to see it and to announce it. It's almost to push it back, to say, "This is what it is, and look, we are living through this." And the voice is always resilient, I think. The voice goes throughout the book and is still moving forward. And certainly, with this book, there's a clear change at the end, which is a different move. But for me, to write a book that would not say any of that, and instead pretend that everything is this sort of artificial perfection, is not life affirming, in fact, because it's not true. So to actually announce what is happening, to see what I'm seeing in the world, in my daily life, and then to move through it—there's something really life affirming about that. And when reviewers are very reductive and say that it's very dark—one reviewer said it was a book about goth—they act as if we should be writing poems that are negating reality. And when people come up to me and say that the work is helping them, or changing them, or that it speaks to them, then that is what it's doing. I hope that makes sense.
Yeah, it makes complete and total sense. It's like that line I pointed out in "Death by Water," "I need the darkness / to work with." It's this process of alchemizing darkness into a way through. Darkness is a hole that allows for an object to pass through it. And even in that poem, you move from "I need the darkness / To work with," into "What / Other sweet, / Shy boy's number / Can you give me, please."
It's this delicate, translucent, permeable experience. There's something magical, not in the cliché flat adjective way, but magical as in alchemical, as in this is a real miracle that's taking place here about that transformation.
Right. I'm so glad that you used the word alchemical because that's something I've been thinking about. I'm working on an essay about Tina Chow, who was a jewelry maker. It's a very long story, which will end up in the essay, but the process through which she was making these very original and beautiful, but strange pieces of work, was alchemical. And she was using her own experience—and I love the idea of making something out of nothing, or making something out of the darkness, or the experience. And her goal was to, through that process, put her experience into the work, and then when people wore her jewelry, they would be healed through that. So through her own experience of suffering, she was able to make something out of nothing and then give people these things. It's really beautiful.
That's so interesting to me. I love that parallel. And it seems so true to the spirit of these poems that there is a deep and fundamental belief in this idea that outsiderness—in whatever way that manifests in a particular poem, or in a particular book, or in a particular body of art—that outsiderness lends an insight or defamliarist potential to look at something that has been looked at and to see it in a totally different way. In one of the letters to Emily, you write, "We have no home here Emily, this planet not being ours." This sense of displacement and this sense of being on the outside and looking in grants a different sort of vision, or a different sort of acuity. Am I making any sense at all?
Yeah, yeah. There are so many different routes to go with that. One of the things I've been thinking a lot about, and this goes back to Tina Chow—she was half-Japanese and half-German—and this idea of not quite fitting in, and I think that is the experience of many people, whether with class, or race, or ethnicity, or gender, or sexual identity, or whatever. And so it actually does provide, right? Because if it's an experience of being in-between, then I think one does have access to understanding.
I feel the pressure all the time to conform from all angles. And I think that what is really beautiful and remarkable is when people do recognize who they are. They recognize that there is this otherness, or betweenness—yeah, I just hit a dead end. But there's something to that, you know? And you can see it in other people, and there's empathy then available, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I think there's a long history of this sort of visionary poetics, where the poet was someone who had been othered—Hart Crane, or William Blake, or even Ecclesiastes, or whatever—all of these are sites of feeling like you're on the outside looking in. And I liked how you talked about being of two cultures, or three. You know, you're German, and your father's from a different culture, and you're living in America. And if you're switching between these places, you're allowed access to a sort of experiential contrast that people of a more homogenous background might not be exposed to.
I think it's complicated. You know, my dad is Mexican, but because of his skin color, he had to sit on the back of the bus, and he was unable to get a job. I pass as German, or white, or whatever here in the States. But then there is the legacy of class—how being born outside the middle class in this country affects one’s life. For example, being the first in my family to attend college, I had no idea how to apply to colleges, or even which colleges to apply to. I was not introduced to poetry until I attended college. I have not yet had regular healthcare—neither as a child nor as an adult. I am always at risk of sliding back into poverty. This foundation affects my daily choices. What are assumed norms within the US poetry world—having a home, having insurance, having access to services—are not actually norms.
My parents live in extreme poverty, and then my world is much different. I'm in academia and I'm a poet living in New York. So it's a very strange situation. When I reach for one thing, it slips away and becomes something else. My experience has been this experience of marginalization of the people that I'm writing about. So it's the experience—this is not necessarily mine, but the experience of my family and of people I know—of continually falling between the cracks. And with my dad, it's not just his skin color because then there's class and all these other factors that explain why he is where he is. It's all very complicated, which is why I'm interested in this in-between place, and the experience of being invisible or slipping between the cracks of our society.
Yeah, and it seems to me that the movement from Wunderkammer to How the End Begins is pivoting more outwards. There's still an I, but the I seems to be describing an environment. The full, lush ecosystem of each particular poem is more the centerpiece than the ecosystem of the I's consciousness.
Yes, that's definitely something that's been going on.
Has that been a deliberate shift?
Wunderkammer was the first book I wrote that was conceptual. I had an idea. That's when I had the Hodder fellowship, so I had an entire year—I had the time and space to think about it and work on it. And what I wanted to focus on was trauma. Everyone experiences trauma, but I was thinking specifically of my parents, and war, and the way that trauma manifests. So that's what that book really was. It is internal. The overwhelm and the chaos that is manifested in those poems is deliberate to show how somebody who is dealing with trauma deals with their mind—with what happens to their mind, and how it manifests in their world. It becomes this clutter, and excess, and all these thoughts, and all this stuff. How the End Begins was an entirely different project. I thought, "Okay, that is that one, now let's do something else." I think the clearing away—and you know, the title How the End Begins makes sense for that, too—provided a space for a new project. And that is the goal. Louise Glück said something about how she wanted each of her books to be different. And each of her books is an entirely new project, which is amazing. I don't think each of my books is so different, but when I get to a new book, I want to try something different.
Yeah. That has been my experience of your work, that each book feels like you're trying something new. And I like the way that even the epigraph of your new book speaks to that, "No new world begins without new language." I really like that.
I want to talk a little bit about the series of poems to Emily Dickinson. Even if there weren't a series of poems written expressly to her and borrowing language from her poems, her presence would still be felt. The language is so spare and particular in parts of this book that the spaces between the language become charged. I've always admired that so much, for a lot of reasons, but largely because I tend toward the opposite extreme in my work, I tend toward a sensory overwhelm, and I admire what is hard for me. Do you ever begin with a longer piece and then pare it away to the most essential language?
That's a really great question because I'm honestly not sure if I've thought of the question before. In my earlier books, there are these very small poems. And with the Emily poems, I was specifically writing around this idea of these different women in an eating disorder ward, and the experience there. And it's this thing that I've had such difficulty with because in this culture we have a very limited idea of what eating disorders are. So to write around that, not “about" it—I'm not writing about the thing itself because I don't know what it is. It's something beyond my grasp, so I'm not going to explain it. So then already the poem is going to be smaller. I just realized this as you asked the question—in the poems where I'm sort of writing around something that doesn't have a language yet, the poems have to be smaller.
I think that is the way my poems work anyway. It's not the whole thing, so much as it's the different things that I'm saying put together. That is especially true with the smaller poems. My experience that I was trying to write around was this idea of these super smart, ridiculously talented women, who basically, for different reasons, and they're all different people, had really had enough with consuming the American culture. And in different ways. I think this relates to what we talked about earlier—we're at war, and have been for some time. And you have to take it in, or else you don't. And that's one way that people don't. And I can't explain how that's a mental illness, or xyz. So that's why the poems are like that. It's very complicated. And it seems counterintuitive why something more complicated would then be more abstract and smaller. And then the poems that I wrote this summer are longer, and they're actually more conversational, and they're open. They're not writing around something that is so volatile, generally speaking. So they can cram more things in because I know that the reader is already there with me.
I love the idea of complexity leading to simpler poems as opposed to complexity leading to poems that try to over-explain. That's a really smart and generous approach for you to take.
I also think that the longer poems—the ones I wrote this summer—are more quotidian. I'm talking about what I did that day, or about a movie, or this or that. It's not that I don't trust that the reader is on the same page with the shorter poems, but with the longer ones, I can pick up mid-sentence and they're with me. And so we can go more places, and take more risks, and sort of zigzag with the longer ones. The other thing with the shorter poems is that it is an attempt to create a new language.
And there's this idea I have about creating a new language as a form of silence. Using silence as a form of the language in the poem. Because there are not words. Even when we try to talk about some of these things like eating disorders in our culture, there isn't a word I can use because all the words have already been co-opted and changed. So if I use any of those words, I'm just sliding into a sort of stereotype.
I really love that idea. I think that might be a good place to pivot outwards. I know you've alluded to the books that are in the pipes. Do you want to talk a little bit about what to expect from the next one that's coming out?
Yeah, for sure. The next one is called Dregs. So Wunderkammer has all this chaos, and clutter, and excess, and consumption, and then How the End Begins was sort of the breakdown—in the very last poem I'm basically removing this mask, I'm taking this away. And then Dregs is sort of what's left. Dregs is actually sort of the ruin. And in a way it goes back to the first book, Ruin. But I'm writing about whole different things. It's really about the stuff, the stuff of our culture—I'm being very abstract. It's about what's left over, I guess. For me, it's a pretty risky book. I guess, for me, they're all risky, but—
The new one coming out is risky?
It's coming out in 2018. That's a long time from now.
I think it flies by though. And this book just came out and people are still hopping on board. I'm excited about all the new stuff that you have in the pipes, if only for the selfish reason of having more new poems by you to enjoy.
Thank you so much, this has been great and educational. I really mean that.
Interview Posted: October 24, 2016
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