“We’re expressers! We are speakers into ears! We want ears!”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
"DL: This interview was conducted three weeks before Election Day. Some of its concerns seem very slight to me today, but some seem more crucial than ever. How will we walk now, with one foot in the daily and one foot in History?"
K: You’re in Vermont right now, but you also live in New Mexico, and you also kind of live in St. Louis, and you’re also in North Carolina for Warren Wilson, so you kind of do the nomadic thing, right?
D: Yeah, I do. The job in St. Louis is at Maryville University. This is my second year of doing it. I go there every fall to teach. For 18 years I’ve been in Santa Fe working, sharing a department, being there, and it was a little intense to decide at the age of fifty to take this opportunity that came my way. But I also think that opportunities like this don’t arrive with the same frequency as they do when you’re twenty. So I think you should walk through the door. If a door opens, you should walk through it and check it out.
It was a little discombobulating last year for sure. But I think I’m getting into a groove. I like teaching at Maryville. I’ve only ever worked with hippie-groovy art kids—my people!—and these are not hippie-groovy art kids in the main, so I feel a little like a missionary. Bringing the word of weird. But seriously. To be on a campus encouraging not just English or Humanities majors, but budding nurses, occupational therapists, business majors, and education majors—who make up the majority of Maryville’s student population—to make art a part of their lives feels crucial, especially in an age where arts programming is under siege at all levels of the education system. There are some terrific young writers on campus too, which has been heartening.
I love that. I’m interested too in what you said about how these sorts of opportunities come more often in your twenties than in your fifties. I feel like there are all these prizes and awards for first books, half of which you won for your first book, but it seems like the hardest time for poets is around their third, fourth, and fifth books. In between the time when you’re breaking onto the scene and the time when you’re like Sharon Olds and you have a million books and everyone loves you. I’m twenty-seven, so this isn’t based on a lot of experiential evidence, but based on what I’ve observed. It seems like there are less prizes and awards for poets at that stage.
Yes. Mid-career can be a tough position if you care about readership and attention. And let’s face it—it’s the rare artist who truly does not care about these. After all, we’re expressers! We are speakers into ears! We want ears!
The poetry scene for the last 20 years in particular has been very first book focused, in terms of a, "Wow check out this new voice," kind of thing. I think this is aligned with the general tendency in American culture to privilege what is new and beautiful and never-before-seen. And it can be a bait-and-switch. There’re a lot of opportunities now for first books to get published, to win prizes and to receive a lot of recognition. But then sometimes even getting the second book published can be very difficult. I know of many writers who won high-profile prizes for their first books and then had, or are having, a really hard time getting that second book published. Years elapsing. And then, for mid-career poets, it can be challenging to enter a phase where you are in competition for attention with absolutely everybody, not just your emerging writer cohort.
Yeah, I agree. I think that it begins to look a lot like luck at the very end.
Haha. Yes. I’ll tell you my theory of manifestation. Would you like to hear it?
Would I ever.
It’s a seven-layer roulette wheel. And you only have control over two of those layers. The first layer is the effort that you put into whatever it is you are trying to bring into the world, and the second layer is your attitude about it. Because I really do think attitude and the energy with which you hold something matters.
Oh, I wholeheartedly agree.
Yeah, in some kind of mysterious way. You only have control over those two layers. The other five are spinning around and you have absolutely no control over them. And yet for something to happen, all of those wheels have to align and your ball has to drop all the way through.
Yeah, I love that.
So if you think about it that way, it’s amazing that anything ever happens.
It’s been very helpful for me to think about it this way because it both helps me with my own competitive streak and with, in the Buddhist parlance, grasping. It constantly reminds me there are forces at work that I don’t know about, that I can’t control. I can’t make them do anything and I’ve just got to keep making art. And I have to keep working on my attitude when it enters dark or envious places.
Those other five wheels of time and culture and gatekeepers and bureaucracy and moods—both personal and collective—are just going to keep spinning. And then one day they might concentrically align, and you might get lucky.
Totally, totally. You just keep your side of the street clean. You’re constantly putting forth the effort and you’re constantly doing it with a smile and grateful attitude and if you keep it going long enough then when the other five wheels line up then you’re going to be ready for it.
That’s it exactly.
I have a friend who talked to me about it like this–you’ve got to do the work and cultivate the work because everyone is going to have that moment where an editor is going to ask, "Do you have a manuscript?" or "What have you been working on?" You either have something to show them in that moment, or you don’t. It’s either up to snuff in that moment, or it isn’t.
I guess that circles us back around to the open door. If a door opens, not only should you walk through it, but hopefully you’ve got everything you need in your kit bag to meet that opportunity, whatever it is, that’s on the other side of that threshold.
Because if the door opens and you haven’t packed your bag yet, then you just have to sadly watch it close again.
Haha! Or maybe you get lucky and you find a store!
You walk through the door and you happen to walk right in to a supply store.
You find the spiritual CVS.
Yeah, I love that. I mentioned briefly that your first book, In the Surgical Theatre, was lauded about as much as a first book could be lauded, but I want to talk more about your new book, Banana Palace. In Sky Burial, you’re writing about the outrage and grief of losing parents and a sibling at a rapid clip. And Banana Palace is definitely of the same mind, but it seems like if Sky Burial existed on the spectrum between grief and outrage, then Banana Palace is existing more on a spectrum between wonder and anxiety. You’re wondering and marveling at our capacity as human beings, but also deeply worried about the implications of those capacities. Does that make sense at all?
Yes. So are you saying that you see a through line from Sky Burial to Banana Palace?
Well, I’m saying that I think the tonal register is similar, but the concerns are different. Or that the obsessions of the former have sort of sublimated into the latter.
Banana Palace is still looking at death, just as Sky Burial was, but I guess the difference is that, for Banana Palace, what I was really trying to hold was the way in which the planet feels incredibly imperiled, and how we as a species are inventing all these technological wonders, but we aren't really addressing one of the biggest problems on the table, which is climate change.
I mean there are totally people out there trying to live a carbon neutral life. And there are definitely countries, and even states in this country, that are trying to figure out how to work with alternative and renewable energy. But in general we’re not really making much of a unified effort with urgency. If only we could, collectively, follow the example of the water protectors at Standing Rock! How do you get seven billion people to do this? Or even half? Especially when, globally, there is such inequality of resources, when many people are struggling against war and poverty and collective inattention just to get fed and feed others.
I’m always interested in this: what is the source state in an individual person that leads to our collective ideals and troubles? To me, the Anthropocene era is an end result of our basic, eternal mind/body split problem, where the mind is privileged and the body is deemed problematic, or a dream, or evil, or sinful. I think we have a very ambivalent attitude about the human body and I think it extends to the body of the Earth. I mean, if you can’t stand your own body—and boy does consumer culture encourage this—or if you’re a misogynist and you can’t stand the female body, or if you’re greedy and you just view other bodies, whether they are elemental, or animal, or plant, or human, as resource pockets to take from, then why would you want to preserve the Earth? Instead, if you’re a person of great means, you might end up like the Russian billionaire in that poem, "Dmitry Itskov: A Cento," who is spending his billions, not to combat poverty or climate change, but to figure out how to create a mechanical avatar into which he can download his consciousness.
Yeah, the cyborgification of humanity.
Yeah. So in terms of Banana Palace circling around death, it’s the big death. But my attitude about this situation, while pessimistic, is also really bemused. Because really: what clowns we are! I don’t know, but I think there’s a sense of humor in Banana Palace that hasn’t quite been foregrounded in my other books.
The titular poem has the line, “We broke the world / you’re living in, / future person,” which I think is a totally true line. It’s wry and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also not at all. So much of the titular poem feels like a Rosetta Stone for understanding the book, both in terms of content and in terms of tone, "Information about information was the pollen we / deposited— // while in the real fields bees starved.” We’re sort of accumulating the aggregated compendium of world knowledge since forever at every single moment online, but the bees are literally starving in the fields. It does strike me as funny in that it’s wry and sardonic in the way that you write it, but it’s also deeply sad and true.
Yeah, maybe that’s the Jew, the immigrant, in me. Coming from a long line of people who just didn’t have much defense against oppression and instead wielded a sense of humor.
I think that’s really interesting and I like the idea of some of the moments in this book being your laughing-to-keep-from-crying moments. There’s this line of Harold Norse that I think about a lot where he writes, “I do not think I should love America or leave it. I think I should laugh at it.” I feel like this book is often laughing in that same sort of way, where it’s sad, and also possibly done to keep from a more violent response, you know?
The laugh/cry is at the core!
You mentioned the cento for Dmitry Itskov—that was my first favorite when I read the book, that was the first poem where I was like, "Whoa."
Well, “writing.” You know, I have to put that in quotation marks—
Yeah. I mean, that whole poem is borrowed text, except lines four through six. It’s composed from text rearranged and edited from two different articles: one from The Huffington Post and one from The New York Times. For a long time I was somebody who felt a little suspicious of appropriation of this kind. Nervous about putting my name on it and saying I wrote it.
I love it. I love it as a poem.
When I read these articles about Dimitri Itskov, I was like, "Wow, this stuff is unbelievable, I want to write a poem about this." And then I was like, "No, I don’t want to write a poem about this, the poem is inside of these articles. I want to extract the information and the language that is inside these articles." So in working with these texts, I built my own cyborg poem.
Oh, yeah. That’s brilliant. I hadn’t even thought about that.
If that poem were a human body, with the beginning lines being the head and the last lines the feet, then lines four through six, which are the lines I actually wrote, would be the eyes.
You mean “He's one of the men with brains, wondering How— // To evade / the death of meat—"
"The death of meat, he thinks—"
I love that.
I feel like that’s at eye level in the cyborg body.
That’s a brilliant thought about that poem itself being a cyborg. You compiled it together and you built it in this sort of Frankensteinian way.
It’s totally a Frankenstein poem. Or you could view it as a great act of recycling.
Oh, that’s great. A cyborg is the logical end-point of recycling, I love that. Just hearing you talk about your poems, there is such—and I feel this in reading the poems, too. There’s such a palpable delight in reading them. Even when the poems are talking about something somber, the way that you write and the way that you talk about what you’ve written seems so grounded in a sense of joy and a sense of delight. That’s something I privilege above almost anything in what I read and what I write—the presence of that foundational delight in the process. I feel like, from a craft level, so much of what you write works through surprise. Through this weird yoking of language to unfamiliar language in ways that feel both surprising and totally organic, you know? I think that surprise is a king of delight and that it's a really load bearing element of your aesthetic.
Oh, I love that.
Do you want to talk about the role of surprise in your work? How you think about it when you are in your writing process?
Well, I guess I’d say a couple of things. My own conception of writing is really that writing is an act of channeling.
I always feel like the poem lives in the ether, and it has to figure out how to communicate with me about what it wants. One of the primary ways it communicates what it wants is through the creation of pattern. So when I start to see patterns emerging, syntactical patterns, rhythmic patterns, imagistic patterns, I feel like the poem is saying, "Hey, I want to do this." But also, in the act of channeling many surprises can happen.
I’m looking right now at the last poem in the book, "At the End of My Hours," which is one of my favorite poems in the book, and you— You know, English is built with these X-Y constructions, like “hard and fast rule,” where the two things are basically equivalent to each other in the way that they are used. But in this poem you brilliantly subvert the expectations of what the second thing is going to be, "splicing / fish into fruit," and "prescription drugs / and a hint of spring."
That’s fascinating, Kaveh Akbar! Seriously, I hadn’t really thought about that. It’s important to me to stay grounded. I think that’s where this impulse comes from. I do have a love of oracular tone. You know, the vatic feel. I really love that. But I love too the countering that can happen in poetry, when my poems get to that oracular tone, but can’t stay there with integrity—because, you know, I like to eat rice cakes, and I take thyroid medication, and I watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer avidly. The mundane stuff is part of being me. And part of being alive, too. So I think the way in which I’m inside myself, aware of my transpersonal side and my daily side, is probably what is partially going on with those surprising diction/tonal pairings.
I love so much of what you just said because I love the power of what you call the oracular register. It seems dishonest to stay there because that’s not what my life is. I have a cat and Netflix. To write a poem that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of that self seems dishonest. Maybe you mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a throwaway thing, but I think that, as unsexy as it is to admit, there’s a lot of useful colloquial diction to be mined in zeitgeisty TV shows. To deny that is to be willfully ignorant of a huge part of the American experience.
I agree. You know, as a younger poet, I used to hate it when poems had pop cultural references and stuff like that, but now I’m with you. I just think the entire field of American linguistic experience is available.
Totally, totally. I wholeheartedly agree. I think the entire field is available. And we should make use of it. I think that’s great. Do you want to talk about what you’re working on now, whether it be your garden, or a new book, or a new poems, or prose, or anything else?
For the first time in my writing life I was not working on a new project by the time Banana Palace came out. So I have been utterly emptied and most of my ideas revolve around prose. I actually think my next project is probably going to be a prose book. I think it’s going to be some kind of wonky craft essay on poetry, but with memoiristic parts to it. And I don’t know if that’s of interest or not.
Oh, it’s of interest.
I’m having a head-trip about the memoiristic part.
Like a head-trip about what? Just revealing things so baldly, or?
Who gives a shit about my life?
Sure, sure. But I was talking to Vijay Seshadri for this, and his big idea was that our singular unprecedented experience is the only thing we bring to poetry. It's the the only thing we really have to offer.
That’s an encouraging thought. Just yesterday, a resident here at Vermont Studio Center said to me, "I really want to talk to you about the relationship between the personal and the collective. Don’t you think that, ultimately, the personal is the conduit to the collective?" I was like, "Whoa, you are speaking to my conundrum."
Yeah, totally. And they just offered that unprovoked?
I think the other problem with it too is in thinking about white privilege, thinking about the stories I have to tell in terms of coming of age as a poet, and even as a little kid—look, I’ve had my share of crap. My father was manic-depressive, a rager. He was untreated, it was a fucked up household—materially comfortable, but emotionally very impoverished, abusive and damaging. Nevertheless, I feel like I have lived a very privileged life. And I think that’s been the other hesitation.
But I’ve also been thinking a lot about the earth-touching gesture. When Siddhartha was on the brink of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he was challenged by demons on all sides, trying to knock him off his game. When he refused to budge, the demon Mara claimed the seat of enlightenment for himself, saying he had greater spiritual power. “Who will speak for you?” Mara roared, and then Siddhartha touched the earth with his right hand. This is the central iconic image of the Buddha: sitting cross-legged with the right hand touching the earth. And once Siddhartha did this, the earth roared back, “I bear you witness!” and Mara disappeared.
All any of us are doing when we offer art is making the earth-touching gesture. We are saying, "Here it is." Bearing witness to being. We shouldn’t stop doing this, even when we doubt the efficacy or necessity of our offering. We are part of everyone else’s roulette wheel. Who knows what may make a difference in a life.
That's beautiful. This has all been beautiful.
Thank you so much, Kaveh.
Interview Posted: December 5, 2016
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