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Eric Baus in conversation with Cynthia Arrieu-King
Bushwick, NY, Monday May 4, 2009
Eric Baus was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1975. His publications include Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009), The To Sound (Verse Press, 2004; Winner of the 2002 Verse Press, selected by Forrest Gander), and the chapbooks The Space Between Magnets (Diaeresis), A Swarm In The Aperture (Margin to Margin), and Something Else The Music Was (Braincase Press). He edits Minus House chapbooks, and currently lives in Denver.
Cynthia Arrieu-King: I wonder if you can talk about the time between your first book coming out and then slowly when you realized you were writing a second book.
Eric Baus: I spent a year after the first book came out trying not to write a second book, just writing individual poems. I didn’t want to do the same thing over again. And so I had to forget how I wrote The To Sound. For a while I didn’t write. Then I tried to consciously write other kinds of poems. And all those newer poems failed but they gave me time and distance. I eventually folded some of that writing into what became the second book.
When I moved to Massachusetts, Peter Gizzi turned me onto some new things, like Joe Ceravolo’s poems, that were really outside the tone of the first book. I read a lot of contemporary French writing that was very pared down in terms of vocabulary and imagery (Emmanuel Hocquard, Jean Daive, Anne-Marie Albiach, etc.). I was reacting against my own tendency toward bombastic image-based Surrealism that had come into the first book. I wanted to strip things down, to have more silence and space around the images and ideas in the poems.
When I started Tuned Droves I often collaged work that I didn’t think was going anywhere. I’d generate 10-15 pages of writing and then use mechanical processes that didn’t involve a lot of my conscious intervention: putting things in columns, cutting them up, mulching and harvesting the language. I’d see what elements and figures popped up and pick whatever seemed most interesting and that eventually became what I wanted to write about. It’s a weird reverse process of almost editing first and then seeing it as writing later. The processes would give me unusual syntax sometimes – sentences that end with IS, for example. It’s a lot more like the way people talk than the way written prose functions. I loved that awkwardness and began orchestrating the awkwardness into a peculiar voice for the poems to access.
Cynthia Arrieu-King: On page 28 of Tuned Droves there seem to be echoes: “When I chose where I was I was under her name… ” Can you talk about how these echoes operate?
Eric Baus: I think echoes and echo systems are important to how I write. That feels more like what writing is – arranging the echoes, than writing on top of the blank page. At first it may not seem significant, what I’m repeating, but then over the course of a few pages I’ll figure out what the writing is about. In the line you mention, if I were writing transparent prose I’d try to eliminate that redundancy, but in this case I tried to amplify it because there’s something pleasant and ecstatic about language piling up on itself in that particular way. It feels like a short circuiting of speech that turns into something new when it is written out on the page.
Some of my echoes are thematic (because I want to create a narrative thread), some are for musical repetition, and some are to roughen up the surface of the language so that what’s interesting about the poem isn’t unusual imagery but a focus on language that’s normally invisible. I did that a lot in The To Sound, even in the title of that book. Infusing the word TO with emotion or emphasizing THE goes back to Stein’s or Zukofsky’s sense of the “little words” containing content.
I like the Orange Water poem that ends Tuned Droves – it feels imagistic and I wonder if after mulching this language you didn’t consciously choose to imagine a world or characters?
I definitely did. That came out of paring down the vocabulary. Instead of imagining a world, the world comes out of the fact that the vocabulary of the book is extremely limited – often elemental and anatomical. There are characters but they’re very general. A man, a woman, and a boy pop up from time to time but you never know whether it’s the same man, woman or boy. Sometimes when it seemed like there was a clear set of relationships forming between them I’d try to find a way to complicate or contradict that in some way. Maybe readers would begin to think, for example, that the woman is the boy’s mother. So a few pages later I would disrupt that notion and then another few pages later I would somehow suggest that this WAS the case. The idea was not to confuse or frustrate readers, but to create a fluttering or flickering set of relationships between the figures in the book. As a writer I’m setting paths for people to follow but often suggesting another set of parallel, sometimes contradictory paths.
I was wondering if you could maybe speak about the title (“Tuned Droves”) a little bit.
Something funny that keeps happening with this title is that people think the book is called “Turned Doves” or “Tuned Bones” or things like that. I like it when those misreadings happen because it speaks to the way words are always hiding within other words. In some ways, when someone misreads the title, they are actually following the logic of the poems more closely than if they got it right. The way I write depends upon those kinds of undertones and doubles lurking in the background.
Also, I was interested in vocabulary around flocking and the relationship between an individual consciousness and a collective consciousness – that’s something I’ve been obsessed with for as long as I can remember. In the first book, The To Sound, I was thinking of flocks of birds as a crowd consciousness (how they all know to turn left at the same time, for example). I’m always interested in how thoughts move between people in subtle hidden ways.
Tuned Droves takes that idea and pushes it further, thinking about individual idiosyncratic experience folded into a collective experience.
I think of droves as in torrential rain, overwhelming and at the same time unified — rain seeming to be a mass phenomenon but containing individual drops. I was interested in setting up different experiences like that within the book so you’d feel the deluge of language piling up on itself, then the textual surface would become very sparse.
Tuned Droves is a phrase that popped into my head once when I was thinking about overwhelming experience, what it feels like to be one individual in a body and to have all your organs working together and being aware you’re not one thing but a million different things. I was thinking of the body as a collection of phenomena, something you barely contain. In some ways, language is what we use to keep our bodies together, not our skin. I like the idea of an overwhelming, chaotic force of “droves” and how that energy might be directed, collected, re-dispersed.
I wonder how you feel about a random reader who might pick up your book and say, “I don’t know what’s happening in these poems.” What’s your feeling about accessibility and the intentions you put in your work?
The stance that I take toward readers is very non-aggressive and (hopefully) welcoming. I’m not out to make people solve a puzzle. I’m not trying to be smarter than anyone else. I don’t think that’s how the work operates. When the work comes out as a book it’s an environment, and if people are willing to spend a little bit of time in that space without trying to “figure it out,” but seeing what it does to their thinking, how it relates to what they already know and to let in what’s unfamiliar, then it works. I think, as the title suggests, there’s an impulse to let in a kind of wildness, at the same time there’s a desire to focus the experience in some way.
My first book had pretty good distribution through Wave. So it reached people outside the immediate community that I would have imagined would read it. I got a fair amount of feedback from strangers who said the book was unusual but that it opened up something for them. I think that there are gestures built into the writing that do that; for example, the first book used the letter to familiarize the more chaotic aspects of the language. One reason I write prose is that it’s really approachable. It’s what’s in newspapers and magazines and what we read everywhere. Prose blocks visually fuse language together. I feel if the reader just “goes” with what I’m doing and reads a decent size portion of the work, they will get a feeling of connection between seemingly disparate elements.
I’ve visited classes where my book has been taught to undergrads, and it’s exciting for me because they mostly “get it” as soon as they stop trying to “get it.” When they just describe their actual experience of reading (and learn to think about their “misreadings” of the poems as legitimate readings). Once they stop turning it into “The Wasteland” and turn it into the music they listen to while doing the dishes, something with which they can have a gradual, ambient experience with something new opens up; That has made me really happy.
You know, I grew up in Indiana. In a lot of ways I wasn’t in a very vibrant cultural space. BUT I had teachers who didn’t dumb down the work they presented us – and that is an important and ethical gesture. People sometimes say things like, “What if I showed this to my uncle?” and I’d say, “Your uncle is smart enough to get something out of this.” People have intellectual lives. They might not use the same vocabulary to describe their intellectual life, but it is present everywhere.
I do think it’s important to engage people somewhat on the level of the familiar. Once they let their resistances down and once they stop reading how they think they are supposed to read poetry– they’ll get something out of it.
I often think about political poetry and how it seems important for community. Some have different ideas about what a poem does politically. Do you ever think about your poems in that way?
One of the ways I approach that question has been to create environments in the writing where the relations aren’t locked down, where there’s a less prescriptive sense of how the world should behave, how thinking should be organized. There’s a sense that we all engage with the world in a complex way and that we shouldn’t erase that complexity.
Can you talk about the poets you liked when you were starting out?
The first poet that really mattered to me was Allen Ginsberg. That was in early high school. I listened to a recording of “Howl” and “America.” There were a lot of references to people and historical events in those poems that I didn’t understand at the time, but there was something about his voice and the texture of the language that made me listen to it over and over. Although Ginsberg wasn’t necessarily writing prose poems, there was something I loved about the rhythms of his syntax and his use of the sentence.
A little later, it was French Surrealism – it blew my mind for a really long time. Andre Breton. Tristan Tzara. I liked the way meaning seemed to emerge from the arrangement of imagery rather than from a pre-determined set of abstract ideas.
Eventually, I read Aimé Césaire and Cesar Vallejo. Their use of neologisms and the intensity of their inventiveness with language made me feel like there were possibilities for creating entirely new ways of making meaning in writing.
I read Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. From Hejinian, I learned how language could become a kind of character in itself, like in My Life when the phrase “As for we who love to be astonished” gets repeated in so many different contexts that it seems to take on a personal history or personality. After being so focused on Surrealist imagery, reading work like My Life and Michael Palmer’s Sun helped to think of books as places, as environments to investigate and wander around. Those books both work heavily with echo systems in a way that was very useful for me to see.
Around the same time I read Nathaniel Mackey’s Bedouin Hornbook and Eroding Witness. Anyone who knows me laughs whenever I bring up Nathaniel Mackey’s work because I talk about it so much. I’ve been completely obsessed with it for as long as I can remember. I have listened to Mackey’s CD “Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25” thousands of times. Mackey’s writing creates such a dense weave of references and such a complex interplay between sound, image, neologism, myth, history, politics, love, and music. I love the ways his fiction, poetry, and critical writing are constantly moving through and extending one another.
In the past few years I’ve been reading cross-genre writing and hybrid texts by Renee Gladman, Tisa Bryant, Selah Saterstrom, Bhanu Kapil, Carla Harryman, Tan Lin. The approaches to hybridity these writers take is incredibly various, but the impulse to mix genres and expand the range of expression in writing is exciting.
What do you feel surrealism lets you do that other isms don’t?
I think Surrealism lets me stay focused on surprise, surprising myself as a writer and sort of isolating and tinkering with those moments of surprise to heighten them for readers.
I love the strains of neo-surrealism that John Yau writes and publishes. John Olson is doing a really amazing over the top surrealism that sets the bar for how far you can take that aesthetic. It’s image based but also works heavily with sound-based shifts: Andrew Joron does that too, but in a somewhat different way, with layers upon layers of homophonic slippage. I read and re-read Barbara Guest’s Surrealist-inflected work constantly. There are a lot people re-investigating now, leaving behind the baggage of dogmatic surrealism and updating it so it isn’t just (does a geeky voice), “Wouldn’t that be weird if I put this next to this?”
Surrealism foregrounds the surprise and what you do with that surprise matters. I don’t want it to be a flash. I’d like to integrate those surprises in a way that isn’t contrived but organic and has some shape to it, has some relationship to the world we live in, has some relationship to what’s come before it, that doesn’t take wholesale the political and cultural assumptions of 1920 into 2009 but that thoroughly reconsiders it. I still think Surrealism is a really useful gesture.
My friend and former teacher George Kalamaras is a scholar of Surrealism and related movements, so he knows about writers not as widely translated or read. He’s who I go to when I wonder, “Who were the Japanese Dadaists,” or “Who were the Greek Surrealists?” He’s been great to talk to about Surrealism because he views it as an ongoing, international phenomenon. He traces a lot of the cross-cultural exchanges that inform Surrealism. The way images and relationships got reconfigured in the early twentieth century all around the world as a response to what was happening – I think there’s no way to ignore that. I’m interested in combining/contaminating the Surrealist impulse with other sets of influences.
Is there anything you were going to say we haven’t talked about?
For the first book, I was always thinking about the films of Maya Deren. For this book, I was watching the films of Charles and Ray Eames, Bruce Connor, Joseph Cornell, and Bill Viola. Watching a lot of film and thinking about it as a way of modeling: not necessarily taking themes from film, but considering “How is film edited?” In some ways I want poetry to be more like watching film. I want reading to feel more like viewing. Charles and Ray Eames films are so amazing. They’re so charming. It just makes you feel that big bales of cloth are beautiful. They make you just love material. And colors, and textures, you know? They make you feel like it’s beautiful to see a keg of nails or a bolt of cloth.
I was thinking of a piece of Žižek’s I read on a blog a long time ago. He talked about how now to see the connection between strangers is so much more important than the connections between fixed roles we know of that are so politically charged: gender roles, capitalism, that when you have a connection with a stranger it seems the human and basic aspects can relate more purely. I see that generic quality in the people in your book.
I love that idea. The impulse has to be to talk to people and to connect. If your politics isolate you or make you engage less, then that’s not a very good politics, you know? I don’t mean to suggest that we can or should naively ignore the “fixed roles” you mention, but modeling in writing how “un-fixed” they could actually be is something that interests me. Ultimately, I think I’m only interested in connections. However, mapping disconnections and acknowledging dissonance and discrepancy is necessary in the process of creating connections.
I also wonder does writing change your thinking or does it have an effect on your body?
I like that writing can do these weird cognitive things. That if you organize language in a particular way that it can change people’s breathing patterns or attention level. I think that’s a great goal for one’s writing – to aim to actually change a physiological state.
Some writers say that if they write for a couple of hours they feel better.
Actually I tend to be really nervous and frantic when I write. I get so into a piece, and then I get sensory overload. I’ll write four words and then pace. I’m a pacer. Editing is somewhat soothing, making elements of a piece of writing talk to each other feels great. But mostly I feel writing is stress and frustration and pacing. I think it’s worth it to get to the point in the writing where I can see the parts fitting together, when I feel like I’ve made a kind of diorama or a playground for myself and for readers to explore.
Cynthia Arrieu-King is an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton College. Her chapbook The Small Anything City won the Dream Horse Press National Chapbook Prize in 2006 and her poems are forthcoming in Witness, Sonora Review, LIT etc. She lives near Atlantic City.