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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Poetic License and the Powers That Be:

Rachel Loden

in conversation with Kent Johnson

This piece is 5,600 words or about thirteen printed pages long.

Hotel Imperium, front cover
Kent Johnson: Your first full-length book, Hotel Imperium, is graced with an impressive garland of accolades, and the wider praise it has garnered in various reviews has been effusive and apparently unanimous. One commentator, herself a prominent poet, wrote, ‘Loden’s poetry guarantees complexity as it charts new territory with assurance. Rarely does a writer emerge with such authority.’ I’ve admired the work of the poet who wrote this, and on the most immediate level I certainly find myself nodding in assent. But on another level, I’m wondering about the words ‘assurance’ and ‘authority.’ In relation to the book, did you, do you, feel assured and in full authorial control? Or do you consider the historical materials and personages that famously populate the book to be in some sense in control of you? I suppose this is one way of asking if you’d rather we think of you as the stylish, imperious hotel manager, or as the spooked out guest lodging in the hotel’s most haunted room?

Rachel Loden: Well, this gets at something I’ve been worrying about: what if I can’t stop writing Nixon poems? What if he won’t go away? I think people were amused to see him on the cover of one book, but are they going to start getting peevish if he won’t go gently—if he insists on staying at the nub of things, where he always expected to be?

My Richard Nixon is not simply Dr. Evil. He’s not (just) a literary contrivance or a way to score small political points. He’s more of a muse. Or a death’s-head. Sometimes I think of him as a dancing-master, and we’re doing a kind of aberrant minuet. So I guess you could say that I’m ‘haunted,’ but I don’t really think you can successfully entertain such obsessions without a certain brazenness or chutzpah. And that would have to make me both the hotel manager and the haunted guest.

Yes, I see. But how did the book happen? What came first, the death’s-head or the writing?

What came first is probably the forcible immersion in history, since (for instance) my father, an actor and radio announcer, was blacklisted the month I was born. That same summer, Richard Nixon made his name at HUAC (the House Committee on Un-American Activities). So Nixon has always been with us.

As has Russia. When I write about the former USSR in poems like ‘Blues for the Evil Empire,’ (see Jacket 12), ‘On Beria’s Lap,’ or ‘General Dudayev Enters the New World,’ I’m thinking in part about my paternal grandfather, a socialist who went back to his native Russia, Stalin’s Russia, during the thirties, and was lucky to escape with his life.

But each of the Nixon poems had its own genesis, or seemed to—I didn’t set out to write a series. Hotel Imperium was born on the kitchen table in the middle of the night, when I slapped poems down and tried to see relationships between them. Only after I’d made the book did I really understand what I’d been up to. It came as a pleasant shock. And in retrospect I think that this somewhat chaotic process was much more fun than if I’d soberly devised a book of poems about love and death and the cold war.

Now, what first emerged on that kitchen table was The Last Campaign, right? Hotel Imperium is an expansion of that chapbook?

Yes and no—somebody did once call it ‘Motel Imperium.’ And some of the poems in The Last Campaign are crucial ones in the longer book. But I think I needed the larger canvas to begin to see patterns in the work as a whole and that was a bells-ringing, lights-turning-on kind of thing. I didn’t try to make a book until I’d been writing for decades—partly out of something like shyness, partly because I was convinced that these obstinate, separately-occasioned poems would never fit together. And then they did. It was very odd.

Interesting. So has this unexpected experience changed your attitude or confidence insofar as ‘composing books’ is concerned? What’s in the hopper presently, if there is something, and does it seem to be happening in a manner similar to Hotel Imperium ?

After Hotel was published, I was sure that now I would become a grownup and change my MO and write books rather than poems, as all the really sophisticated people seem to do. Photo of Rachel Loden But no—the poems want to come in the old way, one by stubborn one, rather than being called out from their hiding places in perfectly matched frock-coats and tiny shoes. They want what they want when they want it. And they don’t intend to dance to anyone’s tune. I suppose it would be much better to write a bunch of poems that all fit together like puzzle pieces, but in a defiant way I guess I’m glad that’s not happening. Because I like the fact that each one is a world. Which is to say that each one is set spinning at its own moment and finds its own bearings in space. That allows unexpected things to happen, things that (I imagine) couldn’t happen to poems that were part of a grand design. I guess I still prefer to find the design afterwards. What’s changed is that I’m much more confident that it’s there, coded into the poems themselves, because they emerge from a particular mind.

But then I may throw all that over tomorrow. I’m writing about Lola Montez, for instance, and those poems seem connected in a different way. Her life was so wild, so operatic, that a series would seem to design itself.

I'd love to do more books like last year’s Affidavit, a poem about a murder with wicked, Edward Gorey-style illustrations by Tad Richards. We invented ‘Pomegranate Press’ and Tad ran off copies on his color printer. Perhaps poetry storybooks would induce people to read a few lines without really noticing it! So I'm hoping for more visual collaborations and collaborators.

What’s likely to make it to the world first, though, is a chapbook for Randolph Healy’s stellar Wild Honey Press in Ireland. I was so happy that he asked because it’ll force me back to the kitchen table for another sorting session. After I do that, maybe I’ll have better guesses about my current trajectory. But again, I’m not sure how much I want to know in advance.

To go back to your blacklisted father, I have to ask you, as a long-time former member of the Socialist Workers Party: In that marvelous poem, ‘The Death of Checkers,’ (see Jacket 12), is your correct and fairly unusual use of ‘Trotskyist,’ instead of the commonly-adopted Stalinist epithet ‘Trotskyite,’ indicative of your father’s political affiliations? Was he Trotskyist?

You’re putting me in mind of an old carol:

On the first day of Marxmas, my comrade gave to me
A portrait of Leon Trotsky.

So what is this, a HUAC hearing? But no, my father wasn’t a Trotskyist. Neither was my then much more ‘militant’ mother. My parents paid an unimaginable price for organizing unions and integrating radio stations, so as long as they’re living, I’ll say only that his secret pet name for her was ‘Krupskaya’ (and that Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya was a Russian revolutionary and V.I. Lenin's wife). It was a secret pet name in that my mother didn’t know about it. That was just how he thought of her, several thousand years ago.

I hope you won’t mind my asking you to talk a bit more about your past. It’s interesting—I believe I’m correct—that you have no ‘academic’ training, at least not in the sense that so many poets today receive it? But here you are, in this age of Creative Writing MFA’s and PhD’s, seriously admired by a considerable number of people in the poetry world, many of whom, I think it’s fair to say, are quite curious about what you might do next. Not to appeal to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival audience, but could you talk with as much detail and candor as possible about your poetic education? How did you come to develop, outside the standard channels, what is clearly a very rich and informed poetics?

It’s true that I came to writing in a fairly unusual way—and that was accidental, really, a function of what was going on in my family and in the country at the time. When I had the luxury of being in school, I thrived on it.

But soon after my twelfth birthday, our already beleaguered and (by then) single-parent family was smashed to smithereens, my mother in and out of hospital, my brother and I split up between foster families. This threw me back on my own resources, as you can imagine, and reading was key to making sense of things, key to surviving. In one summer I turned from popular fiction to Kerouac’s On the Road, and it was a short hop skip and jump from that to the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry 1945–1960. That was the mother lode—or shall I say the father lode, given the very few women in its pages (four, I believe, out of forty-four poets). At the time, though, all that mattered to me was that here was this group of wildmen and bohemians and rebels and outsiders and people, conceivably, a little like me. It was like coming home when I found that book. And of course it sent me off in countless directions, falling hard for Wieners and Baraka (then Jones) and Ashbery and O’Hara and Creeley and Koch and Duncan and on and on. God, that was heaven.

Soon I was subscribing to Evergreen Review and Kulchur. I bought issues of the Ashbery-edited Art and Literature from a catalog (they’d been remaindered), mail-ordered books like The Dead Lecturer, The Opening of the Field, Lunch Poems, Ace of Pentacles, For Love, The Tennis Court Oath. But I read everything I could get my hands on—from the ancients to the moderns. All the while of course I was writing hundreds and hundreds of terrible fledgling poems and journal entries. Also books of words and phrases. I’d buy those old black and white composition notebooks, draw a line down the center of the page and on each side, note words and word-combinations that appealed to me or struck me as strange, whether from my own head, teen parlance, or television and the newspapers.

All this was happening in a time of incredible social ferment, the early to mid-sixties, and that added to the exhilarating mix, along with the shattering of my family. By the time I got to the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 and saw Ted Berrigan read and bought a mimeo copy of The Sonnets, something like a poetics was well underway.

There were other stations to pass through as well, such as the Lower East Side in the mid-sixties, where I lived a ragged teenage street life with a cast of anarchists, saints, and oddballs and saw Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable (a multimedia showcase for the early Velvet Underground), heard Ashbery read at some very staid venue and Frank Zappa with the Mothers of Invention at Warhol’s Balloon Farm on St. Marks Place. I remember taking the subway to court after newspapers said Baraka had been arrested, only to find him being wrestled off in manacles.

And there was Berkeley in the early seventies, when I joined something called ‘The Poets’ Commune’ (don’t laugh) and gave lots of readings and co-edited a magazine and met people like David Bromige and Judy Grahn and Kathleen Fraser. These were all ridiculously intense times and very different stories.

But yes, all this reading and seasoning took place outside what are (now at least) the ‘normal’ channels of poetic development. Even then, it was pretty cheeky of me to imagine that I might, if I kept on, write anything startling or valuable, given my lack of poetic license from the powers that be.

Ironically enough, under the circumstances, it may have been a family connection that made the difference. And that was the memory, on childhood shelves, of old tattered books by my great grandmother’s sister, Rebecca Harding Davis, and her son Richard, both writers who mattered in their day (and matter still to some—especially Rebecca). Those books were so important because they said that even somebody from a family like mine could write a book. Even a girl. That was liberating.

That’s a tremendously interesting answer. But to be candid with my ignorance: Rebecca Harding Davis?

Yes, fiction writer and journalist (1831–1910). Her novella Life in the Iron Mills created a sensation when it appeared in the April 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. ‘Without precedent or predecessor, it recorded what no one else recorded; alone in its epoch and for decades to come, saw the significance, the presage, in scorned or unseen native materials—and wrought them into art.... Written in secret and in isolation by a thirty-year-old unmarried woman who lived far from literary circles of any kind, it won instant fame—to sleep in ever deepening neglect to our time.’ (Tillie Olsen)

The thrilling thing for me is that I’ve been able to provide Davis scholars with a crucial document they didn’t have, a family history that Rebecca wrote for her children. It had been in my files for decades, handed down by my grandmother. Now it’s included in a volume that also contains Rebecca’s autobiography, Bits of Gossip, which has been out of print since Houghton Mifflin published it in 1904. Fascinating stuff, especially her meetings with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes and so on. This book’s just come out (Rebecca Harding Davis: Writing Cultural Autobiography, Vanderbilt UP), and I’m told it would not exist without the discovery of the family history.

You’d mentioned ‘The Poets’ Commune’ in Berkeley in the early 70’s. For the sake of the forthcoming ‘Oral Historical Record of American Poetry,’ you have to tell us something more about that.

Actually, I think we were soon a subset of the Poets’ Commune, which was run by a much older guy. We went off and had our little cabal of twenty-somethings and it was great fun. We brought in outside readers (such as Creeley), started a magazine and all that good stuff. There were some marvelous writers in the group—Anna Hartmann was one, and her name will be very familiar to some in the language circle.

Here’s a question out of the blue: Is meter important to you?

What, do you mean you’re not counting off syllables on your fingers as you write? Heavens to Murgatroyd. I don’t do that either, but I can’t see how meter can be unimportant to anyone who loves ‘Jabberwocky’ or ‘The Wall of Death’ or ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ or Mother Goose or Smokey Robinson or Shakespeare or Emily ‘Vesuvius’ Dickinson or Robert Zimmerman. I wanted to be a singer before I wanted to be a poet, and I never really squelched that longing. So the ear matters a lot to me, and that means music as it happens in time. But I almost never think about these things in a conscious way before I write or as I’m writing. I don’t measure them out in coffee spoons, you know. The music happens or doesn’t and afterwards, rarely, I’ll notice something that might be called ‘meter,’ as in the cracked nursery rhyme ‘Headline from a Photograph by Richard Avedon’ (in Hotel Imperium, and in Jacket 12). But that poem was written the way a sleepy child makes up a song—by ear, not by counting.

On the other hand, I was very taken with something Larry Rivers is quoted as saying in his New York Times obit:

Mr. Rivers then went to Europe, living for a few months in Paris, where he studied old masters, Courbet and Manet. After he returned, he painted ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ (1953), a deadpan parody of the salon classic by Emanuel Leutze. He said he was stimulated by Tolstoy’s retelling of a national epic in War and Peace. ‘I wanted to take something corny and bring it back to life,’ he said.

I want to do that too. And of course there’s nothing cornier than meter.

OK, so in this absolutely fascinating education in poetry, the English classics, say, with all their various and intricate prosodies, didn’t play a central role? There wasn’t some kind of serious imprinting in that regard? I’m asking, actually, because there are poems in Hotel Imperium that seem quite deftly formal, possessed of a hardness and pacing and cut that comes usually from an awareness of what one is doing against the arras, as they say, of tradition. Poems like ‘Continental Drift’ and ‘My Geomancer,’ for example, suggest a subtle but real prosodic control, I think, where things have been carefully measured, to some conscious degree, one would assume, and yet the overall feeling that is accomplished is of poised casualness and ease. These, like many other pieces in the book, really are stunning poems, in the tenors of their sense, and the vehicles of their language and form. ‘Ruthless and luxuriant,’ as you say in ‘My Geomancer.’ They seem, again, guided by a confident and knowing formal hand. So that’s why I threw that question about meter at you.

Well, I guess we could kibitz a little first about the word ‘formal,’ and whether it can really be used to point to a certain sort of poem. Ron Silliman has a ‘knowing formal hand’ but unless he writes secret sestinas (and I’d love to see them), he’s more or less allergic to received forms. I’m not, and neither are Ashbery and Koch, say, but they’re rarely mentioned when rigorously ‘formal’ work is discussed.

So yes of course, there’s some imprinting from tradition. You can’t read all of Shakespeare, as I did one year, and not get absolutely besotted with the stuff. At least I couldn’t. I also love the King James Bible and Blake and Hopkins and Dickinson and Stevens and Whitman and Williams and the grouchy anti-Semitic Mr. Eliot and I like to sing all those crazy old British and American ballads like ‘John Reilly,’ ‘The Water is Wide’ and ‘Silver Dagger.’ Even a packet of poems by my Scottish great-grandfather, whom I never met, has left something of a mark. But I was also reading Kafka during the imprinting times, Kafka and Cortazar and Genet and Lorca. It all got swirled into the mix.

As it happens, the two poems you mention were written entirely without measurement of the sort I think you’re talking about—unless you consider the ear itself a measuring device, really the only one that matters. I revise a lot, and almost always the revisions are about (what you so elegantly call) ‘hardness and pacing and cut,’ which is to say music.

You’ve mentioned Ashbery and Koch, O’Hara and Berrigan. I recently read what I think is an excellent essay in American Poetry Review on the NY School, by Paul Hoover. In it, Hoover names you as an heir of that lineage. I was wondering what you thought of his placing you ‘there.’ What if people were to now start pegging you as a third generation NY School poet?

I love those poets. And I might wish that I were in their direct line, in an uncomplicated way. But Hoover placed me, rightly, in a list of people influenced-by, not card-carrying. That’s exactly as it should be, because I’ll never be one of the avatars of third generation NY school, even if I did spend years in Brooklyn! There’s too much of an admixture of Brecht and Plath and Mel Brooks and whatever else for me to belong there, or (most likely) anywhere. But that NY school influence is present throughout my work and I was really glad that (for the first time) somebody noticed it.

Allow me to pose a question of different type, one with some background, if you’ll excuse the length and detail. Last week I was in Monroe, Wisconsin, at the annual Cheese Days Festival. Along with New Glarus, which is right up the road on Hwy 69, Monroe is one of the original Swiss settlements in America. Anyway, on stage in the town square were twenty or so men and women members of The Monroe Clog Dancers Association, and they pounded out, in their traditional puffy skirts and lederhosen, the heavy, insistent meter (albeit with mysteriously subtle and infinite variations) of a Swiss utopian dream that they knew (for their pasted-on smiles betrayed it) had long ago kicked the bucket. Drunk tourists in shorts from Chicago bit their bratwursts and raised their Berghoff beers in mock toasts, laughing at them. Nervous pigeons, at regular intervals, flew in and out of the County Court House bell tower.

I had a sort of epiphany there: It seemed to me that the cultural status of these cloggers bore deep, discomfiting similarities to the situation of innovative American poets today. Now mind you, the cloggers kept beating their shoes in a furious rapture against the stage, seemingly oblivious to the audience’s contempt. It was as if they were literally fueled by the absolute disconnect between their costumed selves and those in the public square who should have been ‘enjoying’ and benefiting from their art.

Without trying to explain my point further, do you think, on the basis of the picture I’ve given you, that there is anything to my epiphany?

I don’t think there are more cloggers today than at any time in literary history. Well, maybe more by the numbers, but not as a percentage. There will always be people who feel safer in groups, and who cares? As the Finns say, ‘Stupidity thickens in a crowd.’

But I’m not as fascinated as you are by all this metapoetics. I’d rather read the work of the poets I love, a pretty random bunch. Yet not one of them seems to be ‘in a furious rapture against the stage, seemingly oblivious to the audience’s contempt.’ The best writers I know and read are excruciatingly aware of the perilousness of their situation. Sometimes they’re so obsessed with it that they take little pleasure in what they’ve done. They subject their work to ferocious criticism—their own, and they often decide that it doesn’t pass muster. Kafka wanted his destroyed, right? Not much rapture there.

But you should write the essay you’re beginning above, and prove me wrong.

I doubt if I could. Very well, here’s another totally odd question, one that maybe relates to the issue of meter’s ghost that just came up. There’s been some talk in the past few years about ‘avant-garde’ poetry and the sacred, and about the potential concordances between idiosyncratic compositional approaches and spiritual practices. If you don’t mind my asking a perhaps impolite question: Do you believe in God? Whether yes, no, or I don’t know, as a so-called ‘innovative poet,’ how does spiritual belief or the lack of it relate, 1) to your poetry in general, and 2) to the specter of Nixon and other spirit personages in Hotel Imperium in particular?

Okay, let me lay out some contradictory evidence. In Hotel Imperium I explicitly address ‘God,’ ‘Jah,’ ‘Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim,’ and ‘my little flower of the Negev,’ all in one furious rant. And I just bought Pasolini’s ‘Gospel According to St. Matthew,’ which I first saw many years ago. His Christ is so compelling that I suspend disbelief, at least while he’s on screen.

On the other hand, one of my favorite comic bits in the movies is the chapel scene in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life: ‘Forgive us, O Lord, for this our dreadful toadying. And barefaced flattery. But you are so strong and, well, just so super.’

My mother’s people were Protestants of various denominations, my father’s non-observant Jews whose longing for ‘justice’ (or even vengeance against the bosses) was, I think, as much religious in tone as it was political. That made me both a Jew and not-a-Jew, a Christian and not-a-Christian, a red diaper baby and (inevitably) a tiny capitalist tool. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable way to grow up, but it did discipline the mind. What did it mean, for instance, to be Jewish enough for Hitler but (lacking a Jewish mother) not Jewish enough for the Jews? I saw beauty and hypocrisy galore in all the traditions, and that was invaluable—even psychedelic, because it made me question everything.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (along with fairy tales) were my childhood catechism. I loved the White Queen, who could believe six impossible things before breakfast, while I couldn’t manage even one. (‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice. ‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again; draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’)

Well, that’s probably a reference by Carroll to getting a hit on the opium pipe, wouldn’t you say? What’s your opinion about the drug-free, eroticism-free, ‘mind in control of its language’ poetics of Language poetry in its classic ca. late 70s–80s period? Do you think ‘Language poetry’ is still relevant (the academics certainly seem to think it is!), or does it sort of seem to be coming to mean to American poetry what Nixon has come to mean to American politics?

It’s still relevant, or you wouldn’t be asking me about it, yes? It’s there like the sets in an opera, a backdrop for acting out Oedipal fantasies and all sorts of Sturm und Drang. Some people are shrinking away from it in horror, some are running towards it with eyes closed, some are trying to attach themselves to it with tiny suction cups, still others are pensively taking its measure and chipping off pieces of lake and cloud.

What was that typically brilliant piece by K. Silem Mohammad—I think he’d searched Google for the word-sequence language, poetry, is and constructed this hilarious mosaic out of what turned up on the results page (‘Language poetry is a way to make sense of the world. I never really know what I think’). I found it very touching, somehow—all these stuttering attempts to come to terms with a kind of big, scary, megalithic monument. What is it? Are the ancestors still awake?

As for Carroll and the opium pipe, I have to differ: Lewis Carroll was a logician. I’m married to a logician and can testify that these people do not need opium.

I wouldn’t want you to think I’d left that ‘God’ question behind. Why’d ya tell God to ‘get out of Dodge’ in the poem ‘Roger the Scrivener’?

Actually, I didn’t. I offered God a whole menu of choices—removing His helmet, taking a mud bath with the rest of us, showing off the seven wonders of his crazed fecundity, etc. ‘Or just get out of Dodge,’ I said. So the choice was entirely His.

I just read this wonderful interview with Cesar Vallejo, conducted in Spain in 1931, and originally published that year in the Heraldo de Madrid. It is now on-line in Masthead # 6. I believe this is its first appearance in English. Here’s the opening:

—César Vallejo, tell us, why did you come here?

—Well, to drink coffee.

—How did you begin to drink coffee in your life?

—I published my first book in Lima. A collection of poems: Black Heralds. It was in 1918.

—What interesting events happened in Lima that year?

—I don’t know ... I was publishing my book ... over here the war was ending ... I don’t know.

Isn’t that delightful? My question is, what are your own stimulants for writing? I ask, partly, thinking of the old POETICS list, when you, David Bromige, Maria Damon, and George Bowering composed over numerous months an hilarious, exciting, and inspiring renga-like soft porn exchange. And I believe this may have happened while Hotel Imperium was still in the works? Did fantasies, erotic or otherwise, toward these other people have anything to do with the composition of the book— or of whatever you were working on at the time?

You mean, do I have Nixon mixed up with George Bowering? What a thought. Nixon in drag, Nixon with a lampshade on his head! No, I don’t think so. I have, you know, never met George and Maria, and I haven’t seen David in a very long time. But I am quite fond of them all. I don’t know how they looked at what we were doing, but I thought we were spoofing the list. What sort of behavior could we engage in that would turn a prevailing humorlessness on its ear? We were tummlers. I found it amazing that some people read those posts so literally. Or thought we were hanging our private brassieres and/or jockstraps out to dry! That kind of underscored (what I thought was) the point of the whole sordid exercise.

Yet such is the life of poetry, as you know. As I said at the time, all this comes to strange fruition in my sonnet sequence, ‘Snorkling the Lotus.’ But that won’t see daylight till the gang of four is long beyond embarrassment.

But hey, speaking of God, stimulants, and interviews, I just came across a conversation with General Don Hughes, once Nixon’s military aide and appointment secretary. It’s kind of lovely, I think.

INTERVIEWER: In the last days of the 1960 campaign, you and Richard Nixon were in Fresno one night. He was exhausted. He had been campaigning day and night. Tell us about that night.

GENERAL DON HUGHES: I went down and he was asleep in a chair. And it was a deep sleep. I shook him gently and he didn’t respond. So, a little bit more and he stirred. So I finally just picked him up physically and put him in bed. And at that time, he opened his eyes and he said, ‘It’s going to be all right. God is with us.’ And he went to sleep.

That’s a remarkable anecdote. Of course, if God had been with us, he would have kept sleeping for the next fifteen years or so. OK, next question: A reviewer in The Boston Review compared your wit to that of W.H. Auden, a poet whose work, of course, has connected with great numbers of readers. Hotel Imperium, quirky and smart and with as much irony-cut as it has, seems to have a kind of ‘popular appeal,’ a quality of audience pull, à la Auden. And I’m not suggesting it could really happen, because we are in another time, certainly, but would you like to be a poet with the kind of popular readership and cultural ‘oomph’ that Auden had? I’ve no doubt you are having a hard time keeping a straight face at this, and I kind of am too, but in another sense I’m actually quite serious, inasmuch as one has to wonder to what extent formal/ conceptual ‘experiment’ and ‘innovation’ in poetry surrenders, ipso facto, in its textual micro obsessions, any claim to a macro public resonance. Your work, in some ways, might be seen as pointing to a felicitous middle ground, where humor and pop culture and edged nostalgia dovetail with poetic rigor and ‘difficulty’?

Well yes, I am cracking up a little. The poems of an agoraphobic housewife in Palo Alto, California, are not likely to take the world by storm. Have to say I’m also gagging a bit at the word ‘nostalgia,’ however edged. If there are thousands of readers in the hinterlands who get all squishy when they think about J. Edgar Hoover, Felix Dzerzhinsky, and that tricky guy who wanted to blow up the Brookings Institution, then welcome to my world! I remember walking home from second grade and finding the FBI waiting at my front door. So ‘nostalgia’ is not really my take on the last century.

But who wouldn’t want to be a poet with the readership Auden had? I do think it’s interesting that so many people turned to ‘September 1, 1939’ last fall. Would I like to write a poem for (what Mandelstam called) ‘my age, my beast’? Damn straight I would.

Thank you so much. It’s been very interesting. My last question: What do you still hope to do in poetry and in your life?

Silence, exile, and cunning. I just want to write some poems that can’t be denied, despite the fact that I’m not likely to get out there and flog them anytime soon. My model of a ‘career’ is very different from the one that seems to be in vogue. I want the luxury of compression. With luck, I’ll be a little like Jack Gilbert, who publishes books rarely and makes each one matter. I don’t need tenure! My early years were interesting enough, shall we say, that I’ll never use up (or live down) all that awe and terror. What Emily said. ‘My Business is Circumference—An ignorance, not of Customs, but if caught with the Dawn—or the Sunset see me—Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty, Sir, if you please, it afflicts me, and I thought that instruction would take it away.’

You can read Tom Clark’s review of Hotel Imperium in Jacket 12, and two further poems by Rachel Loden in Jacket 16.

Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information about his work.
Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.

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