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in conversation with
Noah Eli Gordon
The following interview took place via email in the early months of 2008. It was originally published in The Denver Quarterly (Volume 43, Number 1:2008).
Noah Eli Gordon: 2007 saw the release of two major works: The Middle Room, a memoir clocking in at over 600 pages, and The Line, a collection of prose poems. Although publication dates often create a false trajectory of a writer’s past and present concerns, when read in tandem, these two very different prose works seem to share not only various emotional and intellectual concerns, but also specific content. For example, early on in The Middle Room you recount the discovery in the garage of “an enormous stack of love letters” written by your father and addressed to your mother, which gave you a fuller sense of him as a person outside of your own experience. This particular passage took on a renewed significance for me while reading in The Line the poem “The Cover-Up,” where you include the following: “On occasion, material evidence contradicts memory. Like when you found the letters they’d written in which he’d said affectionate things and all of her years of negative campaigning went completely down the drain.” Whether or not this is a reference to that same discovery, the poem created a link for me between your various projects.
With the poem’s question “are these records of events your senses stored without your knowledge?” this link was further complicated, as it sent me back to the title poem from your earlier book The Sense Record, where “[t]he gray of an old folded paper / decomposed on the nearby walk,” leads to “[t]he heartfelt story of engagement / recast as sucker bet, who licked the stamps, / who walked the streets, the earnest underlings, / forestall the mockery in memoirs, / two-to-three hundred ‘as told to’ pages / to set the record straight.” Again, this might not be a reference to the that same incident, but it does carry similar concerns as regards the complexity and conundrums of what, exactly, constitutes truth in writing, and of how documentation can alter that regard. In fact, the poem includes these lines which I read as looming large over much of your work: “What I write in truth today / tomorrow will be in error.” You also mention the necessity of truth in The Middle Room, with the admission that you “could not adopt a literary style for the sake of a mere idea unless [you yourself] had experienced that same idea as true.”
My first question then is one of truth. How do you conceptualize the role of truth in your work? How is (or isn’t) such a role altered when moving between genres? Is The Middle Room, as a memoir, any more beholden to truth than the poems of The Line? Is truth in a poem different than other kinds of truth? Does a writer have an ethical responsibility to truth? Where do truth and imagination intersect for you?
Jennifer Moxley: Well, in some way, your line-up of quotes from my work answers your own question. Truth in my work is just that: a question. The story about the letters records how material evidence contradicts personal legend. This was my experience in writing The Middle Room. Rae Armantrout asked me, “How did you remember so much?” I didn’t just sit down one day and it all came pouring out. I did research: journals, letters, checkbook registers, photographs. Often the evidence contradicted my memory, the question of honoring both the material record and my memory then became one of artfulness. But “The Sense Record” is suspicious even of material evidence, because, again, the body and mind have their own archive apart from made things. I do not believe that we have experiences and then remember them rightly or wrongly. The Proustian model is preferable. The present unfolds unexpectedly in the future, the past holds the present hostage and shapes it.
I’ve always disliked the way the contemporary intellectual discourse sets itself above the past as “knowing better,” claiming to see truths the past was blind to. Poetry has a duty to pressure conviction. I suppose that is a form of being “beholden to truth,” as you put it.
As for genre, sometimes I joke with my fiction writer friends that the difference between myself and them is that they make an art out of lying. But that’s obnoxious. Fiction can tell great truths, and should, as should poetry. The claim that “there is no truth with a capital T,” is meaningful when discussing individual experience or power structures and the making of history. But there is honesty and dishonesty, and when Truth is violated you know it. To riff on Emerson’s “you cannot kill time without wounding eternity,” I might say “you cannot lie about your life without wounding Truth.” So perhaps it is a question less of accuracy and more of intention. Rousseau claims at the beginning of his Confessions: “My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.” And John Cowper Powys says something similar in his Autobiography, claiming that a lot of human loneliness and suffering would be alleviated if people just told the truth about having a body (or to be more specific, the trauma of troubled bowels, which was his particular misery). Readers might turn to biography in order to discredit autobiography, but this to me is a profound misunderstanding of the lens of subjectivity. Of course it shapes and frames. Most have no problem with this when it comes to visual art, saying, “Oh, that’s Van Gogh’s vision, etc,” but, with writing, things get all mixed up with document, and blurring becomes complicated.
Sometimes a student will ask: “Is it okay to write about something that didn’t actually happen to me”? Of course. Because experience is not merely “what happens to us.” And yet another student wrote a poem about writer’s block in which she had herself crumpling up a piece of paper in frustration and throwing it in the waste basket. Disbelieving this image (did any writer ever do the same?), I asked her: “Did you really crumple up your draft and toss it away?” “Well . . . no . . .” This is the kind of falsehood that makes for bad poetry because it is not telling the truth about what really happened in that moment of frustration. It is not risking the embarrassment of banality. But I’m more interested in the mind’s vision of truth outside of the limits of experience in the sense of “this is what happened to me today.” Experience is a grander category, which includes what we read, dream, and think. Can the poem accommodate that? Through imagination, yes. Some say language itself limits and defines our experience. I agree in principle, but doubt I’ll ever be skilled enough to have found the limits of my materials. I am a poet because language, especially as it lives in poetry, approximates my idea of truth in a more satisfying and meaningful way than any other human production or activity. So yes, there is an implied ethics to the matter for me, and it informs who I like to read and hopefully how I write. I dislike work by writers whose game is to show you that they don’t believe a word they’re writing, writers who are at pains to show you that they are always already “outside” of the work and aware of its devices. I know that art is a frame, and do not need to be reminded or “liberated” from a too facile acceptance of its manipulations.
NEG: Interestingly, both The Middle Room and The Line often touch upon that very divide between the truth of one’s experience and the more objective truth of events; however, they do so with “devices” that are quite different. The Middle Room contains many extended similes which draw on everything from nature imagery to the history of literature and painting, common domestic scenes, and nods to horror movie narratives, while The Line eschews simile for metaphor. In your chapbook Fragments of a Broken Poetics, you write, “It seems as if the able use of metaphor has precipitously fallen off since doubt was cast upon language’s ability to represent the real, and yet simile, a far less interesting trope, somehow continues to thrive.” This reminds me of Williams, in the preface to Kora in Hell, labeling simile as “a pastime of very low order, depending as it does upon a nearly vegetable coincidence.” Was the writing of The Middle Room a relief from the demands you place upon yourself in poems? Was there any overlap in the creation of The Line and The Middle Room? If so, what difficulties did you encounter in moving from one to the other?
JM: In no way was The Middle Room a relief from anything. It was an incredibly difficult book―from the standpoint of psychic health, craft, personal risk, writing, publication, everything. Several friends have reported “staying up all night to read it,” polishing it off in a day or two. This can be a bit depressing considering that it took me ten years to write it. Not of steady work mind you, but there were multiple revisions, and many hours of labor involved.
I’ve always loved heroic similes (as Homer uses them, but Proust as well), which is perhaps why so many appear in The Middle Room. They were something narrative permitted. I liked the way they let me bring information into my book not necessarily justified by the dominant narrative, and yet at one with its atmosphere. Plus they allow for syntactic playfulness and complexity, and gorgeously exploit the delights of anticipation.
The Middle Room is a book about a time and person that no longer exist. I wanted to honor that time, to make it live again in order to explain to myself what the hell happened. The Line is the death shroud of that history, a move toward the metaphysical. There was no overlap in their writing, one followed upon the completion of the other. As for the Williams, one of the reasons I love him as a poet is precisely because he is fond of “low order pastimes,” and “vegetable coincidences!” It was very snobby of us both to dismiss simile so. And yet metaphor, how alluring it can be!
NEG: While The Middle Room is clearly the narrative of one becoming a poet, I do read The Line as a record of the daily renewal of such a transformation, as a kind of testament to the continual becoming out of which a poet writes, and therefore as a poetics. I’d like to include the title poem in its entirety, as it’s relevant to my question.
True faith does not need the state to enforce it. It makes neither hope, nor a shroud. You will walk out of the visible and learn to accept the darkness. You will find the line. It extends backwards eternally into the past and forward into the future. The utterance cup, the gentle metric, old words new mind lost time and loves. You sensed it all along, but gaining knowledge was hopelessly muddled by the inherent drive to author new life. Now cut the spittle line spun into reason and enter the grave alone.
In other words, write. Find time in words. Replace yourself cell by letter, let being be the alphabetic equation, immortality stay the name.
I read this poem as Rilkean in its anxieties and reach, its haunting admission that the work of a writer is in fact marked with the issues of “psychic health” and “personal risk” that you mentioned. Although I don’t think the poem at all ironic, in titling a book of prose poems The Line there is an attendant authorial grin, no? Of course, here “the line” is multifarious in its connotations, and reappears as one moves through the book. Would you talk about how you conceptualize this line?
JM: I’ll start with Mallarmé, from “La Musique et les Lettres”: “To create is to conceive an object in its fleeting moment, in its absence. To do this . . . we conjure up a scene of lovely, evanescent, intersecting forms. . . . Then when the melodic line has given way to silence, we seem to hear such themes as are the very logic and substance of our soul. Yet whatever the agony may be in which the Monster writhes . . . no vanquished throe may bend or cross the omnipresent Line which runs infinitely from point to point in Its creation of an idea―creation perhaps unseen by man, mysterious, like some Harmony of perfect purity” ( . . . nulle torsion vaincue ne fausse ni ne transgresse l’omniprésente Ligne espacée de tout point à tout autre pour instituer l’Idée; sinon sous le visage humain, mystérieuse, en tant qu’une Harmonie est pure).
The “melodic line” gives way to silence and other themes are heard. In the spring of 2005―when I was finishing The Line, which I had started in the fall of 2004―I gave a course on French Symbolism. When I reread Mallarmé’s essay I was struck by this passage, because it so accurately represented “the line” of my book, as well as the silence of my own “poetic line” before The Line’s inception. Mallarmé gave me a gift. Was this “plagiarism by anticipation” as the Oulipians say? Coincidence? Or had suddenly returning to the Symbolist thought I loved in my twenties brought themes to the fore that had been dormant? I don’t know. But I was at a point in which the fragility of creation seemed especially acute to me. And yet like a controlled experiment, routine and stability had given me access to a vision too subtle to have been detected in any early rush for relevance. I realized that I must learn to await some things in stillness.
Some reviewers have seen “the line” in my book as referring to poetic lineage. This wasn’t so much in my thoughts as I wrote, but I can see why they arrived at such a reading, and it doesn’t seem entirely wrong. It works if you believe poetic lineage to have a strange, inexplicable quality. It doesn’t work if you see it, as I have a tendency to do, from a strongly socioeconomic viewpoint (the whole “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” version of literary history―“mute inglorious Miltons” and so forth). But, leaving traditional history behind and returning to your question, I will admit that I’m hesitant to say “I envisage the line as x,” for fear of its vanishing, for it is a wholly mystical concept, evoked with a faith in the evanescent connective tissue of language through the material world.
NEG: I do admire the evocative and suggestive openness of The Line, and its trafficking in what you’ve mentioned as the mystical and metaphysical. I’d like to ask you about these elements in relation to poetic communities. As far as current experimental, innovative, or avant-garde communities, these things are somewhat out of vogue. Granted, there are exceptions (Fanny Howe, David Shapiro, etc.), but by and large they’ve been jettisoned in favor of less elusive (or more, depending on your stance) forms of discourse. There’s an interesting moment in The Middle Room where you mention a workshop given by Charles Bernstein, a workshop in which you were not enrolled, but that lead to all of your friends giving up “their habit of writing short lyrics in favor of long systematic works.” In speculating on whether or not this workshop would have completely altered the course of your own poetry, you wonder if you might not have simply “thundered against the strictures of another’s poetic agenda,” as you had in the past. To me, this thundering is a pervasive presence in your work, albeit one that stems from context rather than content. In a sense, some of the work of the emergent avant-garde of the ’90s was about reclaiming the space for lyric (I’m thinking here specifically about the polemics issued in Apex of the M, that final Technique issue of o·blék, your work as editor of The Impercipient, and the constellation of poets in An Anthology of New (American) Poets). Can you talk about this thunder then? About both its personal and communal manifestations? Is there any disparity between work that harbors a reverence for the ineffable and yet stems from a community that seems to question these very same concepts?
JM: I love this question. Or perhaps I should say these questions, as I can count at least three question marks above me! Focusing on this “thunder” reminds me of the The Dictionary of Received Ideas Steve Evans and I wrote (or perhaps I should say “channeled”) as the last issue of The Impercipient Lecture Series. We used Flaubert’s phrase “Thunder Against It!” on the back and throughout as a shorthand for a kind of rage certain subjects seemed always to elicit in our poetry community. That said, I don’t really see myself as a “thunderer.” In other words, I don’t feel that I’ve ever written what I’ve written in order to not write what others are writing, if that makes sense. But I have written some poems that are in a critical dialogue with certain facets of the poetry world, “Out of the Cradle,” or “The Best American Poetry” from The Sense Record come to mind.
In the ’90s, though I knew poets who were vocally against Language poetry, and preferred to throw in their allegiance with some other New American Poetry line, I was not one of them. I was always grateful for the influence of the Language poets, and for the poets they lead me back to―Oppen, Zukofsky, or even Mayakovsky. The intellectualism of Language poetry attracted me, as did the alternative they provided to what I took to be the masculinist-anti-intellectual experience-based poetic of the NAP. I remember getting into fights defending Language poetry! Isn’t that funny? And I was not willing to publish in The Apex of the M because I didn’t agree with the magazine’s editorial embrace of religion. Now I wonder if my resistance wasn’t in part because of a fear of my own attraction to such lines of inquiry. But I didn’t want to be defined by another’s agenda, or as polemical toward Language poetry because I wasn’t. I wanted more time to make up my mind as to what I thought. As for elders, I doubt there are any Language poets who would care to claim me or my work (though Bob Perelman has been very supportive). And yet, though I haven’t always been welcomed into spaces marked “experimental,” I’ve always had wonderfully stimulating conversations about the art with Language poets. Most are learned and willing to talk, and rarely ask for any “offerings” or kowtowing at their feet.
The part of your question about the ’90s and “reclaiming the space for lyric” reminds me of a group reading I happened to catch in San Francisco when I was there a few years ago. It was a very celebratory and energetic event, with all of these new young (twenty-something) writers doing fantastic work, and laughing, and just enjoying each other and being in poetry. I knew very few of them. But as I sat and listened I started to feel strange. I was tired and a bit alienated. I realized that everything I was hearing sounded Language-poetry influenced, using the codified devices of that branch of experimentalism, and a tone not so different than the one I’d been hearing since 1985. I left thinking that the intervention my friends and I had made in the ’90s had had absolutely no effect. It was as if our work had never even happened. Of course I was being a bit of a drama queen, but nevertheless it upset me. This experience felt similar to those priceless moments when, after giving a reading, some eager graduate student newly enthused about Language poetry approaches to tell me I should read Lyn Hejinian (or Darragh, or Harryman, etc). This has happened more than once! I feel like saying: “I’ve READ these writers! And my syntactically complex hypotactic lyrical poetry is the direct result!”
It seems difficult to segue from the anecdotal to the metaphysical, but here goes. The mystical, the ineffable, the unknown. So many great innovative poets have been interested in these realms of the ideational world (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Yeats, H. D., and Duncan, all come to mind). Our Dictionaryentry on mysticism reads: “Make fun of it but secretly believe. All poets are prone to it.” That’s a light-hearted way of acknowledging that poets have always been interested in mystical knowledge. Though it may be true that such thinking has been out of vogue, as you say, in favor of materialist or structuralist explanations, I like to remember that even the central concept of Capital, the commodity, is framed by Marx as a magical thing. I’m of a mind to believe that any prolonged poetic working with language will lead one to think mystically. However, it is only in a climate that questions the vagaries that accompany mystic rhetoric, that is to say, an intellectual climate, that such openness to alternative forms of knowledge remains relevant by steering clear of facile reverence. Olson’s astute critique of Duncan in “Against Wisdom as Such” (which was no doubt a self-critique as well) is a wonderful essay on of some of the risks of going down the reverential path. In my view, the mystery is not in you, but in the world, and it is a lie to pretend otherwise. And yet I love Duncan’s poetry, and feel that part of the reason the mystical line of poetic thought has been cut is due to the fact that his work has been in the shadows in favor of figures such as O’Hara and Spicer (whom, let it be said, I also love). Perhaps when Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Duncan comes out he’ll finally have the renaissance he deserves.
I’ll wrap up this extremely long-winded answer just by saying that I believe doubt the greatest expression of faith. I’ve heard Fanny Howe say “I’m a Catholic who doesn’t believe in God”! Though this sounds a little like a koan, I completely understand her. This is a great way to “thunder against it”!
NEG: Earlier you’d talked about the difficulties involved with the writing of The Middle Room, and within it you make mention of a collaborative work that was “out of all the things [you]’ve written over the past twenty years, the most enjoyable to compose.” You also include a quotation from your mother’s take on the difficulties of being a writer: “You can’t not do it, but you are miserable all the time you do, with occasional bits of euphoria.” The final poem in The Line ends with these sentences, which I read as among other things indicative of the inherent yet redemptive difficulties of giving one’s self over to the writing process: “The sacrifice of the new life has reanimated the birds. Their song is your troubled lover. This is the house where you live now.” Does doubt drop its anchors while you’re writing? Which is to say does this notion of faith through doubt inform your compositional practice?
JM: Strangely, doubt has never been something I associate with the process of writing. Often possessed by a fierce sense of purpose, I move poems forward toward completion with uncanny surety. Which is not to say, however, that at times I don’t find writing difficult or frustrating, I definitely do. But not because I am filled with doubt. Rather, difficulties arise if I don’t feel certain as to where the poem is going or what I’m trying to say. This is probably why I’m a very bad procedural poet, and very resistant to writing as a daily practice, or as an “experiment,” in the Poundian pseudo-scientific sense of that word. If I’ve felt doubt about my writing, it has been during the attendant struggles of publication and reception. Rejection and silence foment doubt like nothing else. And yet that’s the doubt that conjures faith, because you must affirm your vision against the silence, apathy, incomprehension, and even good intentions of others.
NEG: This struggle of publication and reception is really palpable within both your work itself (poems like “The Best American Poetry”) and the way in which it’s framed. I’m thinking here especially of the dedication in your first book Imagination Verses (“To my Contemporaries”), the passage in The Middle Room where you note that “the representation of celebrity and exchange” in journals like Paris Review and Agni made the poetry within them feel more remote than the work of your own peers, and the implications of your above-mentioned decision not to publish in specific journals. I’m hoping you might talk a bit about the importance of such a stance. Once you’ve done your writing―created the thing you’ll eventually let loose within the world, does it matter to you how (and where) that thing is received? Has this changed at all for you within the last decade?
JM: As I said in my intro to Imagination Verses, great writing can transcend its packaging. By which I didn’t mean, “even humble no name presses can house genius,” but rather, “even mainstream and compromised venues can occasionally make good choices.” Penguin with Alice Notley, for example. The key for me is to not have the publication process too radically distort or undermine the work, or, far more devastating, keep it from its audience. To have my work published by a big press and sent off to chain bookstores with lame poetry offerings guarantees that my readers (if any arise from this grim practice) will remain soundly at a distance. Still gripped by the romance of a rangy, dedicated, idealistic, funky poetry community that believes what it’s doing as a group has meaning, I much prefer finding readers with whom I might eventually have a dialogue. The presses I have published with have always been run by friends who do what they do out of love for the art. I’m very lucky in that.
When I finished the manuscripts of Imagination Verses and Often Capital around 1994, I did try get them published by established presses. I sent Often Capital to Roof, Kelsey Street, and the National Poetry Series (Sun & Moon was participating that year and the judges made good choices: Lee Ann’s Polyverse and Cole Swensen’s Noon). Imagination Verses went to The Figures, Wesleyan, and U of Georgia (Bin Ramke presiding, they chose manuscripts by Pamela Gross and Kathleen Halme). Though six rejections is not so terribly many, I was very blue about the failure. I tried Provincetown Arts Press, and maybe a few others I don’t remember. Then I reminded myself of literary history and decided on another strategy. After all, the brilliance of nearly every poet I admired was not initially recognized by established publishers or journals, nor by the middlebrow reading public. I convinced myself that the rejections did not mean the work had no value, but rather that its value was not visible by venues with an established aesthetic. Even presses like Roof and The Figures, one time champions of the new, had settled into the aesthetic out of which my work had emerged, but did not easily resemble.
I called up Lee Ann Brown and asked if I could “use” Tender Buttons to publish my book. I’d pay for it, design it, everything. She agreed and I set about learning Quark. Once the book came into the world Lee Ann got a Fund for Poetry grant, from which she sent me $1000 to help cover the costs I’d incurred. I individually wrapped each copy and mailed them to friends, and poets I admired. The response was warm, personal, and immediate. It was a wholly positive experience, so much so that I vowed never to blindly send a manuscript into the world again. Fortunately for me, all of my subsequent books have been requested. I worried a bit about The Sense Record, not readily seeing where it might fit, when Rod Smith casually mentioned he’d be interested. At first I didn’t take him seriously. “I’m not visibly experimental enough for Edge,” I thought. But Rod is a visionary, he doesn’t need the obvious gestures to be present in order to see innovation in the work. In this he is like Creeley, who was also secure enough in his literary taste not to need all the work he liked to replicate the codified gestures of his tradition. How much nicer it is to have a friend say, “When you have a manuscript finished, I’d be interested,” than to stoically place the correct postage on ominous SASEs! Though I haven’t looked back since my turnabout after that initial fishing in the pools of established presses, my highbrow refusal of certain forms of publicity has relaxed a bit. For example, though I had been against blurbs or headshots on books, when Simone Fattal (The Line publisher) said, in her deep authoritative way, “Jennifer, you must have blurbs,” I didn’t fight it, and I’m honored that Rosmarie Waldrop and Alice Notley agreed to write for me. I don’t want to become morose or pathologically self-sabotaging in the name of integrity, I just hope my career choices can remain meaningful and made in a way I can live with and still feel I’m honoring the work.
There was a moment, a few years back, when some of my contemporaries were “flying up” to more established presses, and new young things seemed to be cropping up in great numbers and effortlessly slipping into national recognition, when I felt a tinge of doubt about my decision not to pursue a more flashy career. I am, after all, extremely mindful of the fact that other people take such mainstream markers as true indicators of value. Academia forces this position. For example, though I was tenured at the University of Maine with my small press allegiances intact, I don’t think I’ll soon forget the paroxysms of praise the administration went into when the Denver Quarterly granted me that Linda Hull award. Chests puffed with pride and I was patted on the back as though I’d landed the Pulitzer. Swooning over the prize winner, they somehow managed to restrain themselves from any desire to read the winning poems. It was the kind of empty meaningless praise I’ve managed for the most part to avoid, but it would be perverse to pretend it didn’t help my case among those who care nothing for poetry. Though my tinge of doubt has passed and I’ve returned to feeling content in my choices, the hitch in it always was, of course, the assumption that if I wanted to go that way, that any one would have me. It isn’t at all clear to me that my work is―except by a few hundred people―any more readable under the current fashions than it was ten years ago. There is also the crucial question: if Imagination Verses had been published by Wesleyan or University of Georgia Press, would it have been the same book? I think not.
At times I have wondered if the silliest thing about my position on publishing is my foolish conviction that it is shared by others. I have been variously disabused of this notion, but never more so than when completing The Middle Room. Many people, looking very excited, advised me that this was my chance to win fame and a contract with Big New York Publishing. Of course none who did so had read it, so their well-meaning enthusiasm bubbled up in ignorance of the book’s extreme eccentricity. Nevertheless I couldn’t help but detect, behind this sweet desire for my success, the assumption that I’d written The Middle Room for this very purpose. A ticket in so to speak. I began to wonder if everyone felt secretly degraded by their small press existence and longed to break out into the mainstream. And yet, I suppose, small presses have always in some fashion been but step ladders on the way to grander things―canaries in the coal mine of poetic value. They take the risks, and if they survive it is usually because the writers they published become successful, which inevitably spells the end of the relationship (James Joyce’s abandonment of Sylvia Beach comes to mind). Though the small press world is very healthy at present, and in some underground-as-hip-performance-of-integrity-and-market oneupmanship sort of way de riguer, the “they” who grant access to monies and jobs still require a different passport.
NEG: One of the fascinating aspects of your work is its ability to be both direct and complex, by which I mean that it often moves with a knotted syntax or complex argument, one which mirrors the complexity of the ideas and subjects you’re turning over; and yet, at the level of the phrase there is an immediacy, a graspable, palpable use of language. How do poems begin for you, and how are they shaped, guided, or altered once there? Where along the spectrum of discovery and detailed plan do you find yourself most situated?
JM: Funny, recently my friend Aaron Kunin and I were talking about this question in terms of food preparation. He’s a talented baker. I’ve been privileged to taste his cardamom flavored bread generously spread with honey. I do not particularly like to bake, but I love cooking. Aaron made the claim that baking is like conceptual art, all the decisions are made in advance, and then you put the dough in the oven and the magic takes place. A non-conceptual form of art, which is not to say an art sans concepts, rather a more spontaneous, disorganized, or romantic―in the sense of explorative―would be more analogous to stove-top cooking. You taste, you throw in a pinch of this, a dash of that, outcome evolves through process. This is the way I write. But . . . just to complicate things, I also heatedly told Aaron, “Once the first grapheme is down, all is determined!” (He was incredulous). Language takes over. To continue the cooking metaphor, if you decide to “melt butter over medium heat” you’ve already made a significant decision about what the finished meal will taste like and who will be likely to enjoy it. Recently I reread a journal entry I wrote while working on a series of ekphrastic poems. “All the poems are coming out about apocalypse, genocide, and entrapment, I can’t really explain why this is,” it read. So, you see, there is still a split between the writer and the reader. The writer refines her instinct through concerted study, the reader trusts in visions that often appear quite far from wise.
NEG: Is there something there in your compositional method akin to Spicer’s dictation? Which is to say, does being somewhat led by your own poem, becoming a reader while still very much the writer, derail those early determinations you’ve made for specific directions?
JM: This can happen. Similar to the way in which it happens in life. For example, you make the decision to go to a certain program at a certain school, move to a specific place, take a job, or move in with somebody you love. As you prepare for the transition, you imagine the ways in which you’ll shape and change your new situation. Inevitably, what happens is just the opposite. Experience pushes against our established ideas. Writing is a bit like that. I don’t think Spicer’s “dictation” quite describes it. It leaves out too much. Yes Orphée was being fed poems via the car radio, but it was his desiring ego and obsession with death―not the “messages”―that determined his actions. As Williams says, “it’s what you do with the words” that matters.
Jennifer Moxley is the author of Imagination Verses, Often Capital, The Sense Record, The Line and The Middle Room, and most recently, Clampdown (reviewed in this issue of Jacket), as well as many chapbooks, essays, and translations, including Jacqueline Risset’s Sleep’s Powers. Her editorial work includes publishing the seminal ’90s magazine The Impercipient, poetry editorship of the legendary journal The Baffler, as well as work with journals The Poker and The Modern Review. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Maine.
Noah Eli Gordon is the author of several collections, including Novel Pictorial Noise, which was selected by John Ashbery for the 2006 National Poetry Series, and subsequently chosen by Sesshu Foster for the 2007 San Francisco State University Poetry Center Book Award. His recent essays, reviews, poetry, creative nonfiction and other itinerant writings can be found in Bookforum, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, and elsewhere. He pens a quarterly column on chapbook culture for Rain Taxi: Review of Books, and is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Colorado-Boulder.