First Book Poets In Conversation:
Thomas Heise & Jason Schneiderman
Thomas Heise is the author of Horror Vacui: Poems (Sarabande, 2006) and has
poetry and essays published or forthcoming in Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century,
Verse, The Canary, Gulf Coast, Slope, Ploughshares, Conduit, Columbia, Forklift, Ohio, African American
Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and elsewhere. After receiving an M.A. in Creative Writing from the
University of California, Davis, he earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from New York University.
Currently he is an Assistant Professor of English at McGill University in Montreal and is at work on a
second collection of poetry titled The Journal of X and a critical literary study titled
American Underworlds: the Geographical Anatomy of Twentieth-Century Urban Fiction and Culture.
Jason Schneiderman is the author of Sublimation Point, a Stahlecker Selection from Four Way Books. His poems
and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Tin House, American Poetry Review,
Best American Poetry, and The Penguin Book of the Sonnet. He has received fellowships from The Bread Loaf
Writers Conference, Yaddo, and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. A Chancellor's Fellow at CUNY's Graduate
Center, he teaches literature at Hunter College.
Eduardo C. Corral: I met Thomas Heise at a party in Iowa City seven years ago. We talked briefly,
but we never kept in contact. I discovered Jason Schneiderman's work when I stumbled upon his web site. In other words,
I don't know these poets. But I do know and admire their first books. Though voice and content differentiate their work,
both books are illuminated by intellect and heart. In this conversation, conducted over email last summer, Thomas and
Jason discuss Cavafy, illuminated manuscripts, The Pet Shop Boys, and 9/ 11. Though punctuated by theoretical speak,
the conversation displays hard won insight and empathy.
TH: There is much I want to ask you about your book Sublimation Point, but I thought we might start by widening the circle and talk about poetry, poets whose work we like, things we look for in a poem and cherish when we find them. Sublimation Point strikes me as a wonderfully “controlled” book. It has an impressive austerity, yet a plain-spokenness too, and together these remind me of Cavafy’s work and of the work of the contemporary poet Henri Cole. You may have had other models in mind, or none at all. Talk to me about influences, the kinds of poems you like, and why?
JS: Thank you for the Cavafy comparision—he’s definitely someone I would like to count (or court) as an influence or a model—someone who opened up a certain kind of possibility for me in writing. I’ve heard him (I think derisively) called a masturbatory poet, because he conjures the erotics of his past in order to excite himself and his reader (the two aren’t so separate), but I love that. What better emotion to recall in tranquility than arousal? Cavafy nails the erotic moment because he takes it so seriously, in part because it was dangerous and forbidden for him. Me, I can have all the erotic I want. For me it’s the consequences of eroticism—the difficulty of love in the face of disease and life and human weakness. I can’t really think of any of my work as erotic, although I wish I could.
I do like Henri Cole’s work, but he doesn’t exert the tug on me that I feel when I’m being influenced or redirected as a poet—Cavafy has the tug for me; Kafka has it too. Robert Penn Warren’s Audoban exerted an immense pull on me, but after I’d finished SP. Does everyone feel the tug when they’re being influenced or is that just me? I’ve never talked about this with anyone. William Morris knew that art was good when it gave him a warm feeling across his abdomen, and he was shocked when he found out that other people didn’t feel it too. Do you feel it? There’s work I love that doesn’t tug at me—Milton for instance, Auden—but the tug comes as a kind of dare: can you do this?
I love the poem that resists paraphrase—the poem that gets at something I can’t say any other way, that I can’t talk about (that I can talk around, but not about) that gives me that Herbert moment of “something understood.” One of my favorite poets is Natasha Saje—her book Red Under the Skin opened something up for me; I think she taught me about how to join the lyric leap with narrative mastery. That “control” that you refer to is something that I think she put within my reach. I always return to her poem “Agoraphobia” when I can’t write—and it never fails me. “Without even trying I can think of a half-dozen women / afraid to drive.” It gets me every time. I can always write after reading her. Of course, the first poem in that book is about writing out of dissatisfaction—realizing that to get what she wants, she has to do it herself. Also, Ruth Stone’s Who is the Widow’s Muse? had a similar sense of possibility for me—I’d found it in a bargain bin at a bookstore, and it felt sort of wrong and bad and naughty and guilty to enjoy it as much as I did (it was illustrated!). I felt like her work was my secret—of course, now that’s a laughable sentiment—but the joy of ignorance/innocence/youth is the joy of discovery—everything is new and out of context. I loved the conspiratorial tone of those poems, the way they made me feel like we were in it together, just her and me trying to figure something out.
Can I list The Pet Shop Boys as an influence? I think they’re masters of language—I mean “I want a dog” or “Paninaro” seem like such exercises in the pure pleasure of text. When they chant “Armani, Armani, A-A-Armani” I just melt. I mean, it’s inextricably bound up with the music, but still. I melt.
I feel like I’m blithering on, and I’ve barely begun to touch on your questions. But I want to ask you some things as well. It seems to me that in Horror Vacui you’ve invented a new form—the short lined, justified blocks of text aren’t just narrow, double spaced prose poems, they’re some kind of new lineation, some kind of new understanding of how the breath is affected by the line. In some ways it’s like looking at a Calder mobile—I don’t expect than anyone else is going to try it—and yet it seems like it demands a rethinking of how poetry works. I don’t mean to be overly grandiose, but I think it’s a major achievement, and I’ve love to hear what you think the form is doing and how you arrived at it. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on repetition and on the ghazal.
TH: Your understanding of Cavafy as “a masturbatory poet” is much more sophisticated than mine. Mine is completely literal and arises from this single sentence by Edmund Keeley in the biographical sketch in C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems: “A number of personal notes—largely unpublished—reveal that Cavafy was tormented until his middle forties not by complications resulting from homosexual relationships (as a number of his erotic poems might lead one to think) but by guilt over what he felt to be a relentless autoeroticism.” Relentless autoeroticism—maybe this is why Cavafy’s output is so scant! I once heard that Picasso used to masturbate to his own paintings, but that is another story, isn’t it? Talk about narcissism!
Shifting gears. I like very much your description of “influence”; it’s so bodily, which I think is exactly right. I often recall Dickinson’s claim that she experienced poetry as akin to dismemberment, specifically decapitation. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” she once told Thomas Higginson. Poetry is no abstract force here, but a violence that knocks out the cerebral, intellectual response. In fact, for Dickinson, it seems as if there isn’t even a response, just a propulsion backward in her chair before her tiny desk in Amherst. I wonder what her parents thought was going on in that room. Of course this can’t be the only definition of poetry. The genre is too capacious and its possibilities have changed too much over time. I understand what you mean when you talk of being “redirected” by a poet. This feeling, perhaps more than other, is what I seek out right now when I read, when I encounter the work of a “new” poet for the first time. I’m always excited and resistant when I find a poet writing in ways that seem impossible—Dickinson and Hopkins for instance—and I’ve gradually come to understand this resistance as a form of envy for the aesthetic breakthrough of another, a new path opening through language or a new door opening in the tradition.
When I was writing the poems that would eventually become Horror Vacui, I was searching for a way to unify, thematically and / or formally, the manuscript, a new opening, not in Poetry, but for my own poems. For a few years it looked very much like an expanded M.F.A. thesis, an assortment of tolerably good poems, but ultimately more like a collection than a book. Then my father died in 2001 and thus, unfortunately enough, what this book was going to be “about,” in the most narrow sense, found me. I was living in New York City at the time and so that year smelt of death through and through. It was that year that I began writing in narrow justified columns because—well for several reasons—I was looking for a way to “contain” the material of the poems, especially to order it visually for myself. I also wanted to choose my own line breaks, rather than having them automatically determined as they are in prose, so I began writing and spacing within these constricted fields and the results were poems that look like ladders one might ascend or descend. But as Freud would say, the choice was more overdetermined still. The title of the book translates from the Latin for “a fear of empty spaces,” which besides being a psychological condition (known as cenophobia), is also an aesthetic principle of design. You see it in Islamic tile work, often in folk art, and in illuminated manuscripts where text and image cover all the white spaces of the page. I’m enthralled by illuminated manuscripts, particularly with the marginalia of these texts where the scribe often lets his imagination wander to exotic flora and fauna, mythological creatures, human skulls, strange insects, and the like. The marginalia often stands in stark contrast to the conventional devotional images of Mary, Christ, the Apostles that order the center of the page. I wanted to allude to this tradition with the poems and with the cover of Horror Vacui which is a detail taken from a gorgeous and extremely rare black prayer book from the fifteenth century. What does one turn to when the “father” is gone, when only his empty space remains? Language. More language. Cover the body with words.
By the way, I love the cover of Sublimation Point. It strikes me as a mix of geometry and genetics, all washed in muted blues and grays. Since we’re talking about titles, I was wondering if you could say more about Sublimation Point. When I’ve heard you read from the book, you’ve mentioned that the sublimation point is the moment at which material passes from a solid to a gas without liquefying. I think the physics of that has fascinating metaphorical richness. But I also think of the psychology of sublimation in which potentially harmful psychic energy is redirected to more positive ends, perhaps into art. Or perhaps it shows up in unconsciously repetitive behavior (we still need to talk about repetition and ghazals, don’t we?). I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
JS: The Cover is a detail from a painting by Dannielle (two “n”s, two “l”s, overzealous copy editors of the world) Tegeder, who I met at Yaddo and was very generous in letting me use the image. I think that the painting is incredibly sensual, but also very rigorous—it combines a sense of the emotional with a sense of the scientific in a way that I wanted. I also love that it gives you this incredible sense of order without revealing what that order is. The larger painting is enormous. I think that cover art is kind of like the title—it locates the reader before entering the work, and I’m grateful to Dannielle for positioning my reader so perfectly.
The poem “Sublimation Point” was actually written for my MFA thesis. I was having a hard time coming up with a title, so Michael and I would walk around Central Park, and I would talk about things that interested me, and he would give me titles, and then I would try to write poems with those titles. The scientific process of sublimation has always fascinated me—but it always struck me as a metaphor—I could never do science literally—or I did it too literally. I’ve always been like that. I used to feel bad for the letter B on standardized tests when it didn’t seem to be getting its fair share of the answers, and I knew it was stupid, but I couldn’t help it (who knows—maybe the letters prefer not to be colored in). I’d just gotten back from Russia where I’d spent a long time looking at canals, so for a while there were titles like “The Surface Tension” floating around. “The Angle of Refraction” was the title for a long time. Then Michael gave me the title “Sublimation Point.” Le Voila!
I didn’t start reading Freud until recently, so I never quite got the Freudian implications of the title—although I think that the scientific process is a nice image for the Freudian one—the wispy dark material fluttering away in a smoke that coats some other surface of the mind. Of course, sometimes people call it “Sublimination Point”, but whatever, I can deal. Actually, the metaphor I had in mind was not of Freudian psychology but of Longinus’s idea of the Sublime—to me the sublime in art is that moment where you cease to be in your body—it’s closer I think to Freud’s uncanny than Freud’s sublimation—that moment where you come unmoored. Of course, the minute you realize you’re unmoored, you’re back in your body, so it’s always fleeting. But it’s something I’m in constant pursuit of. What shocked me about love was that it was a physical sensation—I’d always been suspicious of love, and the way it’s discussed and pursued, even though I desperately wanted it. My dour friend Henry is fond of quoting some play or movie where the character says, “I’m not sure I would know about love if I hadn’t been told of its existence.” But my experience of love was that it washed over me in waves—it was like a conversion experience—I was suddenly seized by this completely unexpected sensation that I immediately recognized as love. It was pretty intense. I think that falling in love acted for me much like the death of your father did for you—it gave me the center of gravity that my collection needed. Even the poems that aren’t about Michael feel like they’re about Michael. Of course, I resisted it mightily. I used to shout at Michael, “You’re hijacking my process! All my poems are about you!” But now I think: If we needed such traumas to get out our first books, what are we going to do for our second books?
Poor Cavafy—I didn’t know that quote—it’s so sad that his autoeroticism was something he feared taking over. OK, so my book is all about alloeroticism, but why does autoeroticism get such a bad rap? I know Woody Allen was joking when he called masturbation “sex with someone I love” but doesn’t the act of reading (I’m about to get Anne Carson here) demand an exploration of the self by the self—by welcoming the disembodied (acousmatic) voice of the author (that the reader supplements with her own voice) into our private selves—isn’t there something autoerotic about that? Isn’t there something autoerotic about a literate world? I’ve become interested in the idea of reading fiction as an inherently sado-masochistic practice after aestheticism—once the purpose of reading fiction is no longer to learn moral lessons (I initially misspelled that as “moral lesions”)—there becomes something sadistic about enjoying the sufferings of a character in a novel; something masochistic about the pleasure in identifying with one who suffers. I mean, Shelley Long movies are all predicated on a sado-masochistic reading practice of pleasure in her agony (The Money Pit, anyone?). Ditto Snakes on a Plane. Someone like Lars Van Trier seems interested in removing the pleasure of that practice (the hour and a half of Nicole Kidman being raped in Dogville is not fun), but then he puts it back as you enjoy the revenge fantasy of the last half hour. Saramago’s Blindness removes the pleasure of witnessing suffering, but again—once the reader participates in the revenge fantasy, it’s returned. But I’m not against sado-masochism—I don’t want to argue for it as a bad reading practice, just as one we tend not to look at, or one we would be embarrassed by if we did. In fact, I’m excited by the ethical and autoerotic possibilities by which one can be the sadist and the masochist through a reading practice. That’s impossible in an alloerotic encounter—even if one takes turns, the roles (not even sadist/masochist, but toucher/touched, penetrater/penetrated) are bodily determined. Right now I’m working on a paper about the abjecting relationship of fister to fistee in literature, so my mind is full of half baked ideas about pleasure, pain and representation. Of course, any fantasized desire on my part to reassure Cavafy about his autoeroticism would be doomed, since my presence would undermine the “auto.” In fact, looking back over my writing, I think I’ve already set up a system by which my fantasized desire to comfort Cavafy is autoerotic.
The quick and dirty version of my thoughts on ghazals and repetition: 1) Ghazals give western writers a way out of linear thought processes while remaining intelligible (“language” poetry and “experimental” poetry offering a way out of linear though processes that is purposefully un-intelligible). 2) Repetition in its early iterations emphasizes. In its later iterations it becomes ridiculous.
Your idea of “containment” as a poetic practice seems right to me—that the void can be tamed by getting the language right—that fear of the vacuum seems a perfect understanding of what we do. And I love your ladders.
TH: I agree that the reading process can be very alloerotic, what Henry James characterized in less clinical terms as an exchange of subjectivities. I think that sense also applies to this very exchange we are having, this back and forth predicated on openness, a continued resistance to the foreclosure of ideas, sentiments, words, all of which are bound up in a simple desire to communicate, to keep it going. Deleuze speaks of masochism as a state of waiting, of suspended and tense animation that the masochist experiences in its purest form. The masochist thus delays pleasure in anticipation of the pain which will make gratification possible. This is very different from alloeroticism, which might only apply to those imaginative works that are open enough that they make room for us to enter, but which are also structured enough that they shape, guide, plot our fantasies. For me, Deleuze’s ideas about masochism are also useful for thinking about reading and writing, which implicitly involves a contract we freely enter into with the author, but which becomes less and less free as we move further into the book. This tightening of limits, controls, possibilities is exactly what the masochistic reader desires and so if the text remains open for too long, he or she fears that the author—whose presence the reader needs to structure a fantasy life—has relinquished control. This relation is mutually interdependent, but it’s not comprised of equals. In fact, it is the inequality that is itself so erotically charged.
You write that repetition first “emphasizes” and should it continue for too long, it becomes “ridiculous.” It certainly does become absurd, even parodic. It reminds me of the different technologies and machineries of masochistic desire: the endless metal buckles and snaps on restraining devices, the boots or corsets that seemingly lace up forever. Or think of the intricately patterned dresses Wong Kar-Wei adorns his female actors in In a Mood for Love or in 2046, both gorgeous films in which restraint and repetition aren’t absurd or ridiculous, but fundamental to love, desire, and waiting. You also feel the longing in the repetitions of the arabesque wallpaper that pattern the background of his scenes. I can imagine a poetry stuck in a compulsion to repeat, a poetry stalled between its beginning and ending. But for me poems that employ repetition as a structuring device are successful if they approach the problematic from a new angle or from a new context each time; the repetition should come with difference and should make a difference, should propel the poem forward while holding it in place. The tension that builds up from this process can be a source of verbal pleasure and of anticipation that seems quite bodily. As a poet, I’m constantly searching for a way past realistic description and chronological narration, two modes that provoke boredom in me. Repetition can be the vehicle for moving beyond these limitations, which is something I tried to achieve with several poems in Horror Vacui. For me, the poem has to retain some element of the ineffable in it, otherwise it will quickly cease to hold my imagination. Poetry that either speaks beyond the threshold of the possible, the knowable, the communicable or that is battering against it, fascinates me. I don’t want to be able to understand it all, though I want to have the sense that I almost understand it, the sense that if I keep working on it, it might reveal itself to me. Celan’s work is like that for me, as is Jaime Saenz’s, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s, Ginsberg’s “Howl”. Maybe what I am speaking of used to be called the “sublime,” but the “apocalyptic” is more fitting to our relentlessly dark and nasty contemporary moment.
I’m old fashioned in the sense that beauty still has to play a vital role in poetry for me. But it’s often a corrupted beauty or a moldering elegance, as in Peter Greenaway’s horridly gorgeous films. As I contemplate writing my second book—which I’ve only recently begun—I find myself drawn toward a neo-gothic aesthetic. This maybe part of a larger cultural drift resulting from the way the planet is off-kilter and heating up and dying, and most immediately it is surely from image after image that spills out at us from the tragicomedy of Iraq: the missing weapons, the public lies and the public’s recitation of those mistruths, the sickening cronyism and the wholesale bilking of the middle-class and poor by the rich, and then there are the beheadings, the suicide bombings, the torture. There’s only so much an imagination can take. Or maybe there isn’t? Maybe it’s limitless, because you certainly have to be creative to find ways to simulate drowning in your victims. I began by talking about masochism and I found myself ending at torture. Is this coming full circle? A progression? A repetition?
JS: I’d actually intended my second book to be about that question of scale—about how much the imagination can take, and what difference size makes the imagination. In part it was based on my experience of September 11th when the death count kept changing—it was close to 10,000 in the morning, and by the end of the week, was just under 3,000. I do think that people can only manage human numbers in existential singularity—I know that growing up, I could never wrap my head around 6 million—and again with AIDS, who can wrap their heads around those numbers, let alone their imaginations. There are attempts like the AIDS quilt with its overwhelming enormity—each panel taking up a person sized space—or the collage of victims at the Holocaust museum in which the picture contains six million pixels. I do see the correlation between the apocalyptic and the sublime—they each stop time and force the viewer out of his body. But I would keep the apocalyptic as a bodily sensation with an intellectual dimension, and the sublime as an intellectual sensation with a bodily dimension. It’s part of how I keep life and art separate—and I know, it’s a binary—deconstruct! desconstruct!—but I still want them (art and life) to be separate circles on my venn diagram of life or experience—overlapping, but separate. September 11th largely undid that correlation for me between the sublime and the apocalyptic—I remember seeing the towers on fire (I was fairly far north, I was never in danger) and thinking, “that looks nothing like I thought it would.” It was weird to see the pictures of the towers on magazines because it was just so ugly—there were no beautiful reds or deep oranges, just this ghastly yellow fire and putrid gray smoke. The images that did have a haunting and sublime beauty were of the jumpers—but we mostly didn’t reproduce those in America—and some part of me is glad to have been largely isolated from having to experience those images as beautiful and sublime. Even though I remind myself that all photographs are reproductions; that the camera only lies; I still found it distressing to see beauty in their falling. I know there was no beauty in the experience—it is only the camera’s inhuman eye that offers their death up as sublime. I felt so weird watching V is for Vendetta because I kept thinking a) what is blowing up this building going to do, exactly? and b) that’s not what it looks like when a building’s on fire. Not that I’ve ever mistaken a disaster movie for reality, but rather that I’ve seen something of disaster now. I purposefully did not watch the towers fall. I didn’t want to know what it really looked like. Those days were apocalyptic, but not an apocalypse, at least not for me—I’m still here, everyone I love is still here—but they did split something apart for me.
I do think that perhaps the repetitions I brought up highlight the difference between the body’s experience of time and the intellect’s experience of time. After all the body’s repetitions never become silly or ridiculous. Hunger is never absurd or meaningless. The need to defecate never gets tiresome or ridiculous. The need to breathe in and out is so intense that ABC news reported that CIA operatives who subjected themselves to waterboarding (as part of their training) “surrendered” after an average of 14 seconds. But intellectually, repetition makes demands, experiences each new iteration as a separate experience with a separate meaning. So we get hungry every night, but we work our way through a cookbook so that each experience of eating can be different. Intellectually, we have to re-conceive our hunger and our body over and over again—we have to continually return to our experience and rework it; anything else is stagnation—which the body teaches us breeds infection. Masochism, I think, is not a spectator sport (like Model United Nations)—from the outside it just seems silly and repetitive, the same scenarios, the same buckles, the same body parts. But I suspect that the experience from the inside is repeatedly sublime—but I don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that there is one masochism—my reading on the subject (you illuminate the Deleuze essay beautifully) suggests to me that one can’t know in advance what the masochist gets from the experience. Or rather, I prefer to speak of sado-masochism, because it suggests the collapse of the two positions—a sado-masochist can bottom or top, imagine, inflict, or endure a negotiated “punishment.” I suspect that there is little creativity involved in true cruelty—actually reading Sade simply made me nauseous—if it’s creative to figure out that every surface of the human body can be cut, severed, mutilated or penetrated, then I need a new definition of creativity. On the other hand, if a community can create a world in which what one fears the most becomes productive of pleasure—which is what I think that sado-masochists do—that seems like a feat of creativity to me. But there I go, assuming that all (sado-)masochists get the same thing out of their (sado)masochism.
I agree with you about poetry having to be on the edge of sense—the poets you mention do an amazing job of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and its possibilities while still maintaining a mastery over their exploration. I have the sense of their hand guiding the meditation, while being able to limn the edges of that meditation. I do love beauty—and I’m always amazed at the possibilities for beauty that language offers. Beauty is wonderful, but I think undefinable—how do you think about beauty? I feel like it’s always in the “know it when I see it category.” OK, one more round, and then we wrap up.
TH: I’m writing the diary of a man who wakes up one day convinced that he is the last person on earth. It’s a book of prose poems called The Journal of X and here in its early stages it is very much about the beauty of loneliness, about an isolation within the heart that is palpable, sensuous, and frightening. To compensate for all that he has lost, he recreates the world in his journal until what he imagines is indistinguishable from what he once remembered possessing. Eventually the recreated world becomes the world and after a long, long time he forgets there was ever a difference. To me, this is one of the enduring functions of literature; it re-imagines a cold, indifferent world so to answer human needs and desires. But I think it has to be self-conscious and self-reflexive about the failings entailed by this act of re-making, for if it is not, we are left with illusion, delusion, fantasy, propaganda, a utopian vision whose seductiveness conceals a dystopian heart. All utopias are founded on an act of violence and in this book I’m trying to write, it’s the erasure of the world. Historical memory can be one safeguard against this seduction, which is why proposals to rebuild the World Trade Center to its exact pre-September 11, 2001 specifications are not only asinine, but dangerously misguided. It reminds me of those fire-bombed German and Polish medieval towns and city-centers that were rebuilt after WWII as simulacra. It’s nearly impossible to tell that they aren’t “real,” unless one notices that all the gutters are perfectly straight. Isn’t this the same mindset that led to the war in the first place? Or our current war to “remake the Middle East” into a neo-liberal fantasy? Repetition. Or repetition with a difference. I guess this subject keeps coming around in what Nietzsche would call “eternal return of the same,” which would get terribly boring, not to mention debilitating, if we didn’t also have the capacity to forget our past lives. Forgetting can be vital to survival.
Jaime Saenz writes in the opening of Anniversary of a Vision that “The floating world is lost, and the whole of life catches in the spring light of your looking / — and while you repeat yourself in the echo, horizon bound in smoke, I regard your departure / clear substance and hope dehiscing into distance: / you live on that sweetness when beauty, sorrowing, glances your way / and you emerge in half-profile / to the iron ringing of nighttime instruments, golden and blue, a music shining and throbbing and taking wing / in the hollow of my heart. // I don’t dare look at you lest I not be inside you”. He expresses everything I wish to and more eloquently. The melting hope for the lost world, the sorrowing heart, and in the midst of it all and through it all, the simple and powerful desire to be near the one you love, the one who departure is its own music.
JS: I guess this explains why we’re not politicians—forget having a good narrative for the November elections—we can’t even have a vision of an ideal world that isn’t mediated by violence. All utopias are found on exclusion—the idea that the “universal good” can be achieved by simply removing the dissenters from the “universal” [ie, Shakespeare only has universal human appeal as long as everyone who doesn’t like them is excluded from the category of humanity; more extremely and provocatively: the speeches of Martin Luther King only have universal human appeal as long as all racists are excluded from the category of human—which is a tempting exclusion, but dangerous]. It’s actually part of why I’ve stopped wanted a bigger audience for poetry. I used to be so upset that poetry is unpopular—this will reveal how naÔve I once was, but it really came as a shock to my system to realize how very very few people read poetry. I had just assumed that everyone loved poetry as much as I did, that I would enter this sort of underground world of poets and that it would be enormous. Of course, I did—Eduardo is proof of our demi-monde—but I’m really OK with it being small. In Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter” he seems to be concerned about the audience for poetry as a numbers game—I think that his utopia is a world where everyone reads poetry—but I’m OK with a world where poetry is only read by a small number of people to whom it is truly meaningful. It seems condescending to tell people that poetry is a green vegetable that they ought to be eating, and it seems unfair to tell poets that they have to write the kind of poetry that will appeal to a mass audience. I don’t mean to disregard Gioia’s essay entirely—he makes some excellent points—but even if I wanted to compete with film and cable television for attention, I’d rather not. I’ll formulate it this way: I’m going to talk about Snakes on a Plane, but I’m going to read your book.
Thom—thank you so much for this exchange—I’ve really enjoyed hearing your thoughts on poetry and your poem (and my poems). It’s been an absolute delight. Eduardo, thanks for setting this up.