“This isn't just theoretical for me.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I just kind of assume everything is doing that. My TV is blinking weirdly. Have you seen those—this is way off topic already, but have you seen—
There’s no such thing!
Have you seen those TVs that advise you not to be naked in front of them? Those new smart TVs?
I didn’t know they advise that, but I have post-it notes in front of all my cameras. sid
It creeps me out. And not just governmentally speaking—people can just hack them and spy on you. But when I’m out in public everyone else has a smart phone with cameras. You can personally do whatever you want to try to protect your privacy, but it’s not going to do much.
Right. It’s like the thing where you can be the best driver in the world, but if someone runs a red light there’s still kind of—
Only you’re the best driver in the world and everybody else is a terrible driver.
Or a deliberately shitty driver.
Going out of their way to ram into your car. On that cheery note, I guess we can start talking about Look—how long have you been working on the oldest poems in this book?
In a recognizable form, the oldest poem is from 2008.
Oh, okay. So that’s still an 8-year period.
Yeah, it might’ve been 2007. The poem “Drone” is from 2008 and has survived. There may be a couple in there that were written towards the end of 2007, which is when I started the book itself.
Did you start the book knowing that you were writing a collection of poems that would be incorporating the military vernacular and be sort of about the themes of this collection?
Yes. I discovered the dictionary in 2005 or 2006. My best friend, Samira Yamin, is a visual artist and she was doing this series of posters that she wanted to wheat paste all over Los Angeles. She made prints of various war images and wanted me to caption them. "Security Sweep" or "Collateral Damage"—stuff like that. At some point, I couldn’t think of any more euphemisms off the top of my head, so I decided to Google them and saw that, holy shit there’s a whole dictionary devoted to this language. I sat on it for a couple years. I didn’t know what to do with it. Every time I opened the dictionary my head would explode. I just kept thinking, "What’s the poem I’m going to write with this?" In 2007, I realized it doesn’t have to be a single poem— it can be a book. Once I realized that, I realized I could go everywhere with it. The poems started in a basic way. I thought the book was going to be a kind of Devil’s Dictionary—I would take the military terms and give the “true” definition, to de-euphemize what was being said. Two really small poems towards the beginning of Look, “Battlefield Illumination,” and “Pinpoint Target” are indicative of that period and how the book started. Those first few are the only ones that survived of the hundreds, maybe even thousand, that I wrote.
Just those really short five or six word pieces?
Exactly. Yeah. Every morning I’d get up and put the list of terms on my desk and work through them alphabetically.
That’s fascinating. It’s almost like fiction writers writing elaborate back-stories of minor characters.
It was an incredible training experience. It was the closest I got to playing the scales. It was so regimented—all laid out for me. Every morning I knew what I wanted to do and I just had to keep repeating. It was a really invaluable exercise for my writing.
Yeah, totally. It reminds me a little bit of Mary Ruefle’s morning erasures, where she takes these old books and cuts them out and makes these art pieces, but like that’s how she gets into the actual writing of the actual poems.
And you can call it practicing the scales, or you can call it training the instincts, but it sort of prepares you to hold that language in more complicated ways.
And to tune your ear, to use language you yourself would never reach for.
The minor, 50-word vocabulary that I was comfortably circling in, that I am still circling in—that had to expand in ways that were really uncomfortable and foreign.
There’s that Muriel Rukeyser quote, “If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day.” As if the sheer accumulation of the language, and the need to make use of it in some—it’s not even something that we have to do. This language is just sitting in our minds accumulating different connotations. Or losing them.
The Rukeyser, is that from Life of Poetry?
It is! And you take this language that is willfully designed with this almost mercenary sterility, and then your defamiliarizing and de-euphemizing of it becomes really poignant and important. It’s sort of an impossible undertaking, you know? To come at such a big thing that’s so reflexive, this language that we don’t think about at all. You come into writing these little koans, or small definitions, how do you then pivot into the larger poems? “Personal Effects” is over a dozen pages.
Yeah, I think it’s close to thirty. I was re-defining the terms in the dictionary using these documentary moments from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I found this re-defining, whatever my intention, was keeping the wars within the same closed system the U.S. tries to make us believe they exist in. Basically, I was talking about Iraq and Afghanistan using military language, and this military language would only interact with these lands and peoples if I continued like this. This was a serious ethical and political problem. It pissed me off. Out of anger I was like, "America should be subject to this language. I want a debutante to have to use this language." The poem “Dear Intelligence Journal,” came out of this anger, and it was where I started putting the terms in lives and narratives that see themselves somehow free from war. That might have been the first poem where I wondered how I could infiltrate and disrupt territories and languages and narratives that think themselves outside of this violence. You know?
That's a great way to say that. What zone considers itself more independent and free from that violence than poetry? I think that the great powerful gesture of the work is that you are subverting the expectations of a poem in such a profound and dire way.
Yeah. When I started writing Look it was because I felt someone had to write it. It was so bizarre to be in 2004 or 2005, in the middle of these wars and this increasingly fascistic atmosphere domestically, and then to go to a poetry reading where it seemed like nothing was happening outside. It just seemed like business as usual, which it actually was, and is, in a way. But I wanted to, somehow, in this historical moment drop just one pin to say we didn’t all consent. We weren’t all standing behind this. I really believe that all action is political. As a poet, my action, my medium, is language, so that’s where I register my defense, or my outrage, or my grief.
And it ties back to June Jordan's, "Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth." I know she was a big figure for you, but I think that the truth you are telling in this book–it’s a very intimate truth. The book is simultaneously deeply political and deeply intimate in a way that is really spectacular and one that I don’t see done. In the poem “Dependers/Immediate Family,” which is dedicated to your uncle, there’s that line, “I am older than you’ll ever be // and I keep going in that direction,” which is so devastating. It’s one of those moments where I had to put the book down.
Absolutely. For me it’s always been obvious that these things are not divorced—the political and the personal. The lyric self is the political weapon I have as a poet. My subjectivity is maybe the most potent force I have in interacting politically on the page. “Dependers/Immediate Family” opens in a World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., then shifts to the U.S. in the 21st Century, to my uncle who was killed in the Iran-Iraq War. It’s always been important to me to name the content, you know, name the historical singularity of the nations, and moments, and lives I write. A temporary dam against erasure. At the same time, this singularity interests me in its nearness to other moments and lives, in the impossibility of it actually remaining singular. When it comes to war, the form is the same. And connections should be drawn between these systems of power regardless, whether it’s happening in the U.S. or it’s happening in Iran. So when I see Roosevelt thanking mothers for sacrificing their sons and their nylons, I can’t help but think of the mothers in Iran who sacrificed their sons and were celebrated by national leaders. To be the mother of a martyr, or to be the mother of a fallen soldier—you know, it’s funny, you just change the term and it has a different charge to it in English—is a respected position.
Sure, but I think that one of the really important things that that does is it draws a line between the experience here, the American experience and FDR and the war, and the experience of the Iranian soldiers in that war. It’s not like these are two discrete species engaged in two totally different experiences and with totally different sets of griefs—it’s the exact same experience.
In the way that the martyrs were valorized and how your grandmother leaned into that, I think that, too is a way that the language of war sort of pollutes the minds of the people who survive. It even takes away the experience of the grief. Sort of transforms it.
Or it comes back to haunt. There’s a line in “Personal Effects,” where the grandmother says she killed her son. She feels that she is supremely responsible for his death. And I think that’s not entirely untrue—
Because you talk about how they encouraged him, how she encouraged him to go to the war.
Yeah, yeah, and that’s a really difficult moment. And it’s more difficult to talk about than to write in the poem. But we know this reptilian brain rah-rah–go-get-them rhetoric. I remember 9/11. It was my first year at Cal. I was in the dorms. I remember some people’s language changing overnight.
Murderous rage—I remember one specific man in a roomful of people questioning whether I was Muslim, and then saying he wanted to go “kill them” to everyone while looking right at me and me alone. And just two nights earlier we were getting drunk together.
All of a sudden this hate, or anger, or desperation that was always here—it’s not like people became racist overnight—is awakened.
I think that’s so true. I had a similar experience after 9/11 where I felt like everyone needed to hear me say that I was on their side. And it’s like, I was living in the middle of Indiana, I watched football. But that’s something you deal with in the book, too. In “Desired Appreciation,” you’re sort of grappling with the question, "Am I grateful to be here?" Which is not a question that a white guy from Kansas ever gets asked in his lifetime, but it’s a question that people like you or me are asked constantly, either explicitly or with sideways glances, lingering gazes. You have those questions in the book, but then you don’t actually give the easy, expected answers. You deny them. So there’s a way in which you’re putting euphemized sterile language into the poem, and also rejecting some of their reflexive, programmed responses.
That’s the hope.
Can you talk a little about how “Desired Appreciation” came to be?
Yeah, I was on a residency and the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA Torture report came out.
I read it in its entirety. I do this semi-regularly—mining stuff on Wikileaks, reading human rights reports—wherever I can get snippets of first hand narrative, albeit mediated and framed. I read the report and I knew I had to respond. I saw Ovid has this poem—so this is one of those words where I don’t know how to say it—
I think it’s Ibis.
Another word I’ve seen and don’t know how to pronounce. The pitfalls of ESL meets self-taught scholar--
But it’s always a charming thing for me when another person does it because I know that that person has read the word and hasn’t heard it on TV.
It’s only ever endearing.
I’m so glad you can appreciate it. I feel the same way when someone stumbles over pronunciation, but some people are all “humpf,” you know?
So I had been reading Ovid’s exile poems, which are really sad. There’s a lot of pleading, it's really heartbreaking, especially because in his erotic work, before exile, there’s so much ego. And then you have these Black Sea poems where his spirit is breaking, clearly. And I read Ovid's Ibis, which is this insane gratuitous curse poem. The curses are really bizarre—may your fetus grow dragon heads and die in arsenic—they are just all over the place. Real vengeful and real sick of pleading. I was like, "Oh, that’s the poem that I want to use to write this poem."
Oh, that’s great.
Most of the writers I admire and most of the activists I respect, most people who are challenging the nation, they can fall back on “Well, I love this country. I’m doing this out of love for this country.” There is this faith in the “American Experiment” and the myth of America’s democratic origins that I can’t buy. It feels dangerous to say otherwise.
So I was trying to figure out how to name feeling the danger in not buying this American creation myth. These random snippets of my life entered. Like the “Am I grateful to be in this country” was this much longer exchange that I’d had with a white man while I was getting a pedicure. He was getting a pedicure across from me and asked where I was from, of course.
“I’m from Westwood.” And he said, “No, the other from.” Eventually he gets to the answer he’s after: Iran. He said, “Oh, aren’t you grateful to be in this country where you can paint your toenails?” And I was like, “No, I’m not. Do you have any idea what exile means? Do you have any idea what displacement actually does to a person’s soul? And then to be in the country, the nation that caused it? And to have to show gratitude? It’s humiliating. It’s degrading, actually.” These memories were just going on in the back of my head as I was trying to deal with the torture report. But the more I worked on the poem, the more of the report I took out—I just couldn’t stomach it. I couldn’t name—I read such horrendous things and I just couldn’t—I don’t know.
We get “the teeth of handcuffs closing to fix / the arms overhead,” but there’s much worse stuff in there than that.
Way, yeah, way. If such things can be measured. But what would it mean to name the most gruesome or degrading details? To write somebody is in diapers, for example—doesn’t that make the degradation alive again? On the other hand, people look away. This is something I’m constantly weighing because I believe there is a truth that people need to know that’s not easily accessed. Though there was nothing in the report, actually, that I didn’t know before. Maybe there were specifics, but none of the tactics were new. We knew this stuff. None of the sites were necessarily new. So that was another part of the angering force of reading that document. It was like, why is this being treated as some kind of surprise that is now going to absolve America of its torture past. And America is trying to absolve itself by saying it’s the CIA, by naming specific agencies, by naming specific sites, and naming specific officers rather than naming whole failed systemic tactics that have enabled and actually required this system. We keep talking about closing Guantanamo, but Guantanamo is a verb. You can GTMOize any prison you want. Guantanamo itself is modeled after supermax prisons within the nation. So sorry, I’m just going off.
No, you’re so right. There are a million places to go from that.
“Desired Appreciation.” Yeah. I was just thinking about the psychology of trying to break someone. Of learned helplessness. And the various degradations that it requires.
Which we learned by shocking dogs.
You mention absolution. I think that it’s so important for people who read this book to understand that asking you if you’re grateful to be here is way for that guy to seek exoneration. It’s a way for him to absolve himself of the guilt of knowing that he is complicit in the sort of destruction of all—not just our country, but countries around the world like it.
Oh, yeah. It’s almost never explicitly dealt with. Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it the “politics of personal exoneration.” And I think about that term all the time because there is a way in which, you know, when you are sitting there across from him getting your pedicure, you are sort of being asked to absolve him of that guilt. And you don’t know him. You don’t know anything about him. And it’s another sort of violence to levy upon a person in that situation, to sort of cast them in that role as priest. “I hereby forgive you of—”
Yeah, yeah. Especially when I’m willfully avoiding conversations. But there’s so many moments like that and I think those are the most powerful and I think they are also maybe the more difficult for people to hear because it means the ways that we are living our daily lives are somehow participating in this system. And those need to be corrected and challenged.
It keeps striking me how profound an act it is to take these words and to take this language, which has been so—“aggressive euphemization” is right, but it’s more sinister than that because it’s a willful—
It’s a violence.
It’s a violence. The words are designed explicitly to obfuscate the violence that they are performing, that they are denoting.
There are moments in the book like, “Special Events for Homeland Security,” where you sexualize the weaponized language, “Guaranteed to make your SPREADER BAR SWELL.” That’s an instance of it. Where you deescalate the language, and also take it out of its military context. I think that someone who reads this book will never be so dulled to the effect of this euphemistic language, and I think it's a big deal for a book of poetry to be able to do that.
It would be a dream if it were true, or if I succeeded on any level, really. I think that’s the goal of every poem—when you are dealing with a language where the point is actually to deaden the people around you, a poem wants to go “no” again and again and again. Can you feel what is being lost here? Can you feel it? That’s what I hope.
I think you’ve achieved it. You’ve written, “The caretakers of language, the poets, their role in the caretaking of language is to keep it from calcifying.” If you could see me right now, you could see that I have literal goosebumps having read that aloud. It’s so exactly the point of what we aspire to do as poets. There have been millions upon millions of iterations of attempts of doing it, and that it has never been done in this way is really something.
I’m standing on many shoulders here, and I can think of June Jordan poems that do the same. A lot of Rukeyser’s poems. Langston Hughes also has some poems that deal directly with the language of power—there are so many. I could go on and on, and I feel like I would love to and should because this isn’t work that is coming out of nowhere, or out of my own brilliance.
It’s not springing from your head fully formed like from the seafoam, but it synthesizes those influences and delivers a new thing, which is what good poetry aspires to do. There’s this Anne Carson line, “Give me a world, you have taken the world I was,” which kind of seems like what you're doing here. You're writing in the language of the oppressor and of those who have literally displaced you, and you’re sort of saying, “Give me something new. I’m not grateful for this displacement.”
Yeah. You know you say “oppressor’s language.” There’s an Adrienne Rich poem, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” where there’s this prose movement in the middle that’s in part an erotic encounter and it ends with, “this is the oppressor’s language.” It’s inescapable. This isn’t just theoretical for me. There are places, though, where it is willfully the oppressor’s language and those places should be interrogated.
You’re tossing the grenade back at the person who threw it at you before it goes off. And I should also say that it’s not just some rhetorical exercise or political document, it’s deeply and formally interesting. In “Vulnerability Study,” “8 strawberries in a wet blue bowl.” It’s impossible for me to hear that without hearing Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough.” And the “click click” from "Desired Appreciation," reminds me of Bishop's “Click. Click. Goes the dredge, / and brings up a dripping jawful of marl. / All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful,” which is exactly what is going on here. And this is just to say that any reader of poetry will recognize that this is a book that is deeply in conversation with the major works of the Western canon.
Yeah. I would say it is. I would say I’ve tried—not even tried, I mean you read, and you metabolize, and you join a conversation. Well, you’re joining multiple conversations, or you’re creating the room in which this conversation is taking place with these various literary figures that maybe otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room.
I feel like this is kind of touching on, or veering into, the hesitancy that poets sometimes have to be named political, or to have an identity attached to their work. This idea of being pigeonholed. I don’t have that worry much. I want my cares to be apparent and I want my brain to be apparent, and these can’t be divorced from identity or politics. I don’t even want them to be.
The whole metaphor of a pigeon-hole— what’s wrong with a pigeon-hole? I want to be a pigeon, I actually want to be one of the many, I don’t need much. And pigeons are only uninteresting to non-pigeons, you know? And even then, not necessarily so. I appreciate you bringing Pound and Bishop up because in the back of my mind there is still this pressure to prove I can have that conversation. We need to talk about supermax prisons and Pound, or Rukeyser, or any of the number of influences that are obvious here, in the same conversation. I want to have all these conversations simultaneously.
That's one of the cool things that you get to do as a poet. We’re all sort of taking part in this greater conversation that has preceded us by millennia, and will continue for millennia after the last one of us dies—although it’s not looking like we’re going to be around for many more millennia. But we’re all obviously partaking in that conversation. I like the metaphor of the room where you get to pick who you are inviting—June Jordan, and Muriel Rukeyser, and Frank Bidart, and all the voices you sort of let RSVP to the party.
Yeah, and I think that the poets in general, the poets I admire the most, have really wonky dinner parties. It’s like really? You like this person and that person? No Spotify algorithm would predict you would—or they’re enemies, they are mortal enemies. You know what I’m saying?
And I think that’s the luxury of being generations later. I can love Robert Hayden and Amiri Baraka. I can put them in the same room, though they probably would not. That’s a great joy, and it’s something I also love tracing in other people’s work.
Totally, totally. Do you want to tell me a little bit about what you’re working on now? You sort of alluded to a second book in the works.
I’ve been working on a series of poems called Persistence of Vision. It deals slantly with the old idea that we had of how sight works—that the image is burned onto your retina and held there for just a moment until the next image comes. In film, we need the blank space between the frames in order to actually see the motion. I’m thinking about the idea of needing visual silence in order to actually see, and how that might translate into narrative silences forced by closed syllabic structure. And I’ve been doing translations of Forugh Farrokhzad, who is one of the great Iranian poets of the 20th century. So I’m really excited about those. They’re a lot of fun. Her writing is so different from mine, so it’s nice to have her voice in my head for longer than it would be otherwise. And for deeper than it would be otherwise.
I’m glad to hear you are writing and active. And the Farrokhzad translations—do you know if Athena Farrokhzad, the Swedish writer—
Are you going to ask if she’s related?
I am going to ask that!
I’ve been dying to know. I feel like she isn’t, just because it’s not mentioned anywhere.
Maybe we’ll find out down the road. To sort of draw things to a close, is there anything in the book people haven’t really picked up on yet? I personally appreciated the deeply Persian moments, like the little bugs in the sabzi greens that come in the mail from Iran. I read that and my hands just went up in the air. I never thought in a thousand years I would see those mentioned in a poem.
And there’s no getting rid of them!
Oh, I know.
They are the fucking plague.
Haha, that’s perfect, that’s a perfect way to wrap things up. Thank you so much for this all.
Interview Posted: July 5, 2016
MORE FROM DIVEDAPPER. (Drag left)