“The world has already written the poem.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
Can you tell me how long the poems in Second Empire have been gestating?
I think I started writing the oldest poems in the book in the summer of 2010. And then the most recent one in the book is from February 2015. There's a real range, but for the most part they were written in 2011 and 2012. The oldest poem in the book is "Mirror."
Oh, that's one of my favorites in the book.
Yeah, it's the first one I wrote that survived.
"Instead, the faces of the ghosted silver sea / saw me." I love that poem.
Yes, I spent that summer working on producing a catalogue of the remaining books in James Merrill's collection at his apartment in Stonington, Connecticut. And the result of that experience, poetically, was three poems that I wrote that summer: "Mirror," "Illustration from Parsifal," and "First Night in Stonington." The last poem that I added to the book was "At the Palais Garnier."
Oh, that's another favorite in the collection. I want to talk about a bunch of the poems that you just mentioned, but maybe we can start by talking about how you cataloguing the Merrill archives came to be.
Well, Merrill was one of the first poets I loved. In my very first semester at Boston University I took a course on modern poetry and poetics with Bonnie Costello, and she had this marvelous tradition of giving a collection of modern or contemporary poetry to each student in the class based on what she came to know of their tastes and interests. I got Merrill's Divine Comedies, and I totally fell in love with his work. I ended up writing a senior thesis on his work in relation to visual art, and it was through that experience that I ended up in Stonington. There had already been a catalogue done soon after Merrill's death, but there wasn't much of a sense of what still remained in the apartment, so I volunteered to take up that task and spend a few weeks actually in residence in the apartment.
I went through every single book. I catalogued them and noted inscriptions, or bookplates, or any other kinds of owner's markings. It was such an incredible archive. I had gone in thinking it would be primarily a scholarly experience, and that I would gain a sense of a kind of intellectual biography of James Merrill through the remaining books. It wasn’t too far into the process of cataloguing that I realized that it was going to be a personal, sexual, romantic, and familial kind of biography. Those books really tell stories. You'll see one person giving Merrill a book every year for his birthday and then it stops because that relationship ended, or the giver died. You really get an interesting fragmented history through those living books.
That's fascinating. I've never known a poet who has built a relationship with another poet in that specific way. It's cool because in Merrill's later work there is this impulse to commune with the supernatural and with the cosmological through various mechanical mechanisms, and some of the poems in your book seem to really channel that.
Oh, absolutely. It's particularly interesting to be in the remnants of his apartment because he did, in fact, break through and communicate with the dead. So it's a very ghosted place. It's somewhat unsettling, but more for the fact that it hasn’t changed. I think we very rarely inhabit a space that hasn't changed, one that has had no updates done to the furniture, or, you know, "Oh, this wallpaper was hideous, we decided to take it down and put up something else," or, "This old TV got moved out and they brought in the flat screen."
Even old people's houses go through those kinds of changes, so for a house to be frozen in a particular moment is unsettling, but also very beautiful.
Yeah, and especially with the books not being replaced with stock books. It's sort of like a Ouija board that you can actually talk to and hold in your hands. That you can spend time inside of.
Absolutely. There are so many ways to read those books, so to speak.
Yeah. It's interesting because you mentioned three poems that you wrote while you were there, and there are other poems in the book that correspond or communicate to that experience. How do you balance having such a strong voice as Merrill's in a book like this without it overwhelming your own voice. I think you handle it very deftly, but just from a formal craft standpoint, how did you approach that as you were writing the poems?
I never wanted the poems to seem derivative or imitative of Merrill's voice. And frankly, we just have very different voices. But I did want his voice to break through in at least one moment in the book, and that's why in "Erotic Archive" I have that italicized text. I thought it would be too cheezy to have it in the Ouija kind of script, but I wanted it to function like that kind of moment of frisson in this book, that moment of the dead breaking through. I thought it was important to have his actual voice break through in the middle of that poem.
That's an extraordinary poem. There's the moment right before Merrill's voice comes in where you seem to be speaking directly to him, "Though I never knew him, / I've spent my entire life thinking it's his ghost / I belong to." Belonging to a ghost is a sort of syntactical inversion of what it is to be possessed.
Yes. Well, it's true, but I think it's so much of what poetry is about.
How do you mean that?
We all feel possessed as writers. We all feel haunted as writers. I think many poets have this remarkable experience of discovering those ghosts in their work. Discovering the way that their work speaks to something that came before it. I'm sure you've had this experience, where your poem is responding to a piece you’ve never read, or to a writer you've never known before, and then you read that text, which came allegedly chronologically before yours, and find you were partaking in this inverted choreography of belonging and possessing. I feel like I've had that experience so often. I've been rereading Letters to a Stranger by Thomas James and —
Yeah! That's become a huge book for me.
It is so incredibly beautiful and it absolutely gives me the creeps thinking about this person whose book is so haunted by the specter of his own death, and that he would commit suicide after he wrote it. It's such a haunted little vessel. I was rereading it while teaching parts of it to my students last year and I love the poem in the voice of the embalmed mummy, "Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh, XXI Dynasty." I read it and I thought, "Oh my gosh, this feels so familiar to me." I had written "Egyptian Bowl with Figs," which is in Second Empire, without having known that poem, or without knowing that I had known that poem, and that's just one example of a strange—I don't know what to call it—a kind of inverted time that we have in poetry, or is it that poetic material is so vast and encompassing that we're all dipping in and out of the same pools of thought?
I think we're just all participating in the same conversation that has preceded us by millennia and will continue ages after the last person has forgotten our name. I can't believe you invoked that Thomas James book because it's been a huge book for me lately and it's not a book that people talk about very often. In the poem "Egyptian Bowl with Figs" you end on that very extraordinary line that I think a lot of people who've written about Second Empire have picked up on, "No one I've loved / has died, how can I know or say what hunger is?" It seems like a Rosetta Stone for understanding what you're doing in this book. You’re looking to history and through the history of aesthetic creation and artifice to make sense of, through other peoples' experiences, the realities of grief and loss and love that you will soon be brushing up against.
Oh, yes. Absolutely. That's very accurate to not only what I was hoping to accomplish with the book, but really to the experience of writing the book. I think that it's a very fragile and precarious kind of process, but certainly accurate. There's a realization in that moment about some of that fragility, about the danger of using these symbols, or artifacts, or inhabiting them to be metaphors for our own grief.
It's something that the Thomas James poem does well, it's deeply sumptuous, it's macabre, and beautiful in its erotic description of the embalming process, and full of pathos and of beauty, but, at the same time, it's critiquing the usefulness of that gesture. His poem also ends on a question, "Why do people lie to one another?" It undoes all of that beauty that comes before, it makes you at least question that beauty and that sensuousness in light of what a lie is. It's a move that I want to make in "Egyptian Bowl with Figs," too, that even in this ecstatic moment of identification with the historical, there can be some room for critiquing it, or erasing it, or for realizing that, while it's beautiful, and erotic, and sensual, and fulfilling in those ways, that it might be dangerous, or inaccurate, or unfair to do so.
Totally, I love the phrase you used, "The ecstatic identification with the historical," because that seems like so much of what the book is doing. It's finding these moments of jubilation and delight at these historical signifiers that illuminate in some way, but also, like you said, it's questioning the redemptive value of those stories. You talked about how this poem talks to that Thomas James poem, and how he struggles to write about his own death as a way of staving it off. Ultimately, he lost that struggle. There are plenty of instances where all these moments of ecstasy don’t turn out to be redemptive at all.
Or they turn out to be redemptive and also not redemptive at the same time. I think that’s one of the things that draws me to writing about history. There's something at once deeply arrogant and self-aggrandizing about seeing oneself in a historical trajectory, whether it's in a mirror in the poets' apartment, or in the museum, or in the city of one's ancestors, or fearing, as I really did as a kid, that I'd be put in the crypt of the Speyer cathedral, which is, of course, where all the kings and queens are, but, at the same time, there's something that's so vast, and scary, and unpredictable about historical reality that it's also erasing, and it's easy to feel small and obliterated. So I think it can be redemptive and non redemptive at once. It's a tension that draws me. It's both constituting and erasing.
"Constituting and erasing" is the perfect enunciation of what is a looming specter over the book. The first word of the first "Sea Interlude" is "Smoke" and the last word of the book is "Love." It's this alchemical process of transmuting the ethereal into love, into what we're all looking for.
Right, and the title itself, too, suggests that history constitutes and erases itself. That there was a first empire, and there presumably will be a third, and a fourth, and yet no one in those moments has that sense of what is going to happen, it's all kind of imposed. It's so neat and elegant to impose it post facto. I'm thinking of the poem, "At the Palais Garnier." I added it to the collection because I really wanted there to be a Second Empire poem. I came late to the title, Second Empire, though I quite liked it for all of these reasons. I thought, "Oh, I really can't publish this book and not have a poem that refers to the actual historical Second Empire in it." So the Palais Garnier is a brilliant articulation of what Second Empire style is during the reign of Napoleon III. I thought there was a wonderful irony that the building couldn't even be finished during his short reign. It's such a monument to the splendor of the moment, but it really outlives the relatively short Second Empire in French history. So the poem is full of all these aristocratic people who are so bored with their lives they can barely stay awake watching an opera. They have all of this privilege and all of this splendor in front of them, and they have no idea that, in just a few years time, their entire lives will be obliterated as they know them.
I love hearing you talk about this poem, because it's one of my favorite poems in the book. I think it was the poem that made me go, "Oh shit, I gotta talk to this guy!"
Haha. Well, thank you.
And I've read the book a dozen times since then, and had that experience with many of the other poems. But what you're talking about with the Palais Garnier, and how the people were ecstatically in the present tense of that empire and didn’t think of themselves as living in a numbered era that would fall between other eras, corresponds so beautifully with the very human, like "The casts changed seasonally / like our lovers." Like when you're in a romantic relationship, you're not thinking about it as a part of a sequence. We've all had relationships that feel like they're going to last forever.
No, you falsely think you'll never be unhappy again.
Yeah, and how many different iterations of the honeymoonish, "This is it, I've found it, I've figured it out" does a person go through?
Maybe as many as the seasonal casts.
Haha. Or more for the particularly ambitious—
Depends on the person.
Yeah. It's just an exquisite way of drawing that connection without bonking it over the head. So many of the connections that this book draws are so quiet, these tissue paper-thin exquisite things. They're not brutal experiences.
I think that's true. I like to think of the poem as object-like, or I certainly did while I was working on this book. I've been trying to move away from that to experiment with writing a kind of poem that retains its process a little more overtly, but certainly during the writing of Second Empire, I was interested in letting the poems exist as little set pieces. I wanted it to be theatrical in that way. It's about artifice and I wanted the poems to be as well made as the subjects they were exploring.
It’s really interesting how you go about doing that. There are elements of the book that feel almost pointillist, where you're creating these compositional elements that go to build this elaborate larger structure. I'm thinking of the poem, "Purple," which is a very short poem talking about the discovery of purple dye, and then you end it with the historical fact that, "To darken it, / the Romans added black, which came from soot, from scorched wood, / which abounded, one imagines, in an empire." And it's this evocation of the fall of an empire, what's larger than that? But you get there by talking about such a small particular.
And all of the violence behind an aesthetic thing we take for granted. And I'm fabricating that to an extent, no pun intended, but that within a shade of a color there could be a big political history is really interesting to me. And something about that "one imagines," that almost aristocratic dismissal of it all, is part of that interest, too.
Just that little, "one imagines" flourish totally transforms how we feel about the speaker and their authority to make such a statement. Another favorite poem in the book that does a similar thing is the poem, "Fly." I don't know if it's a true story, but it sounds like it could be, about how the richest man in Rome, "carried a living fly / in a white cloth" because the fly has so many eyes that it would keep away his terror of losing his eyesight. The speaker is looking for the equivalent of that fly to preserve his relationship with the beloved.
And, ultimately, the only option is that the story itself is what gets carried forward.
Yeah, that's very interesting. The whole collection is so deftly peopled.
Is there something about the collection that was important to you in its composition that you feel reviewers, and interviewers, and readers haven’t been picking up on?
You know, I really feel lucky to have been read well by the writers of some of the reviews that I've seen. I'm happy that people seem to be understanding the book, and enjoying the book, and being provoked by it. One of the things I'm really interested in is the rhyming couplet.
It's in several of the poems, but mostly in the big "Night Ferry" poem, which was another fairly late addition to the book. There's something about the couplet that I love, and I think it has to do with some of the book's conceptions of history and what it means to come after and to rhyme with the past, which also kind of predicts the future. There's work to be done in my own thinking about what rhyme means as a theory. I understand that it's pleasurable to read rhymes, and that that's why children's poetry rhymes, and why people have been rhyming for thousands of years. I also know, as a composer of poems, that rhyme is a great compositional process. It really limits the number of directions the poem can go in.
There's a way in which rhyming poems, I always think, feel like they write themselves, and it's because they, in essence, do. They're suggesting at least the end place of the next line. And I'm, of course, a huge cheater because I don't write in meter, so I have a little more leeway in these poems, at least in "Night Ferry," with where the line can end, but the rhymes kind of suggest that. But I'm interested in thinking more deeply about what rhyme means more theoretically to a poem, or what it suggests about the speaker's psychological or emotional state—not just a level of erudition or taste for rhyme, but what is it about rhyme that draws us? Is it just that it's delightful and interesting, or is there some other theory that can be deduced about why we're drawn to poetry that rhymes, or, conversely, why we're not, which, I think, is a more predominant contemporary mode of thinking.
Right. And I think that even within a work like this, rhyme can do very different things. In the poem "Night Ferry," it establishes a sort of balance in the lines, but then in a poem like "Mirror," which is also end-rhymed, you have the very asymmetrical rhymes, where there's a line that's ten syllables, and then a line that's two syllables. So there's one side of the rhyme that's looming large over the other, and in thinking about a mirror, it sort of corresponds to a person looking into a mirror, and one side of the reflection being dominated by the other. It does all these interesting things to how you read and think about the speakers conceptually.
Yeah, I think that's true. I think that's a place that I would like to explore as I continue to write poems that employ rhyme. And there's something about the couplet that I find interesting. I've written in other forms that rhyme, but there is something about the proximity of those words that is deeply immediately suggestive in a way that I don't even think lines that are two lines away in a quatrain that rhyme have the same kind of relationship. There's something about the closeness of the couplet that really intrigues me, and that I want to keep exploring in my next work.
Yeah. What are you working on right now? Do you have a manuscript in the works?
I do. I go back and forth between thinking of it as close to being done and thinking that I'm many miles from completing it. It's titled Blackletter. Which is the German form of typescript. You know this kind of Gothic looking, spiny, black script that's used in German culture?
If the manuscript can be said to be about anything, I would say it's about my relationship to German-speaking Europe in three historical trajectories. I've done a lot of research into my family who lived there in historical times, until the early 20th century, and were bakers in a small, imperial city on the Rhine called Speyer. It's such a little town, but it's imbued with huge significance because it was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. It's an interesting microcosm for the history of Europe from the Middle Ages to the present. It's a microcosm of Jewish-Catholic relations in Medieval Europe because it was a major center of Medieval Jewish life, while also being the seat of the Roman Church. So I've been exploring my family there, and they were bakers, makers of bread, so I've been interested in that. I spent part of my childhood living in Germany as an American, and during that time I was completely obsessed with Mozart and his music. So a lot of the book is about Mozart as well, and about bookmaking, and sexuality, and history, and privilege.
I've been increasingly interested in this concept of privilege, which matters a lot to Second Empire as well, with the fragility and invisibility of that privilege to the privileged class and the ensuing peril for them as things change. There's a big sequence in this next book that I've written. It's called "The Prince," and it's a series of dramatic monologues in this unnamed historical voice. She's kind of based on a mistress of Louis XIV, and she's so arrogant and blind, but also really sad and pitiful because she has all this power and privilege, but as a woman and as a courtesan, she's denied any real subjectivity and agency in her life. I was extremely drawn to this figure and wrote a series of seven poems in her voice, which I'm working on revising, but that's the backbone of what it will be.
That's great. That sounds fascinating. It's cool to hear poets talk about researching their work the way that you talk about it. You know, whether it means researching your own family genealogically, or researching a region historically, I think that can be so valuable for poets. And you don't often hear about poets having done that, whether it's for lack of financial or temporal resources, or lack of interest.
Well, I think research is great for two reasons. One, because it's a great way to procrastinate actually writing.
Which is important. And two, as I tell my students, more often than not, the world has already written the poem. One of our jobs as poets is to discover those pieces and arrange them.
Interview Posted: March 7, 2016
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