Harmony, Uncertainty, and the Imperfect World:
Dan Chelotti & Kateri Lanthier

Dan Chelotti is the author of X (McSweeney's 2013) and a chapbook, The Eights (Poetry Society of America 2006), which was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for a Chapbook Fellowship. His poems have appeared, or will appear in Poetry, Fence, Barrelhouse, jubilat, North American Review, notnostrums, Court Green and many other journals. Chelotti is an Assistant Professor of English at Elms College and serves on the advisory board for Flying Object. He lives in Massachusetts.
Kateri Lanthier is the author of Reporting from Night (Iguana Books, 2011). Her poems have appeared in print and online journals in Canada, the U.S. and England, including London Magazine, Descant, Grain, Green Mountains Review, The Antigonish Review, Matrix, Leveler Poetry and Canadian Poetries. Her poem "The Coin Under the Leftmost Sliding Cup" won the 2013 Walrus Poetry Prize ( and was included in Best Canadian Poetry 2014 (Tightrope Books). She holds a BA and MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto and works as a freelance writer.

Dan Chelotti: "Small Hours" ends with the lines: "I will never graduate from / The School of Late Clocks." As in much of your work, time has been sucked into a black hole, and everything is happening at once (As Eliot would have it: "History is now and England"). One second your reader is with Orpheus, the next, Max von Sydow. Although a Bergman film appears in the poem, I want to lean on another director to begin. Andrei Tarkovsky says that:
Some sort of pressure must exist; the artist exists because the world is not perfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn't look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.
Do you accept Tarkovsky's premise? Are poems like "Small Hours" and "Late," among many others in Reporting from Night that abolish time so it can be relineated and enjambed, seeking a harmony that does not exist?
Kateri Lanthier: You've set the bar high, Dan, by quoting Eliot and Tarkovsky in your first question. I'm delighted! And I can't hide my pleasure at having this e-talk with you—now I can ask all the questions that swam into my mind on reading your X, which I found very beguiling.

"Little Gidding" is an appropriate reference. In "Small Hours" I was trying to grapple with "the uncertain hour before the morning," specifically from the perspective of a sleep-deprived parent of a small child. The references veer all over—there are night workers (a bouncer, a security guard, a pilot), an old-fashioned black telephone, a made-up Delta blues song title. I hoped to suggest the time-mashup delirium of the postpartum state. I do agree with Tarkovsky, although in that poem I almost revel in the disharmony. Easier to do that in a poem than in life.

Parents endure a double shock—their first experience, usually, of continually interrupted sleep combined with the shock of the new, that wholly dependent and sometimes alien-seeming baby. You're struggling to establish some consistent rhythms, some harmony even when you feel like adopting the fetal position. Or, as I often heard mothers declare, "I wish I were the one in the stroller!" Memories of childhood emerge, you think of your parents, your life pre-kids, fragments from books and movies. Dreams intrude into waking life. You're in the hothouse, it's all pleasure-pain, and the pressure is enormous, even though it can be wonderful. When I started writing poetry again, after having my third child, I had a strange sensation of condensed time. In "Cygnet Lake," a poem that deals with the before-and-after of motherhood, I wrote, "I'm already living an afterlife." I feel that way more and more: all my experiences, all the "lives" I've lived are converging.

"Late" is both an elegy for my mother and a celebration of my daughter's birth; their lives overlapped for only five months. That poem does seek to relineate and enjamb time (I love your way of expressing it), which seems to me a task both impossible and necessary. I suppose I'm acknowledging the desire to hear my mother's voice again and the impossibility of that, in the line "And I hoard it. As if I could." Yet in the poem, and in life, I do hear her voice—mine sounds like hers, and I startle myself when I use one of her expressions and hear her. It was hard to lose my mother when my daughter Julia, who's now seven, was an infant. I knew what Julia was going to miss, what she would never know, of the matrilineal connection. Both my mother in her weakened state and I in my groggy, mother-of-an-infant way tried to give the baby what we could. I couldn't write about my mother for several years, even though I dreamed about her almost every night in the year after her death. Again, I agree with Tarkovsky: the world is ill designed and all we can do is look for harmony. We find it only fleetingly. Poems can be an attempt to "build in sonnets pretty rooms," to hold on to what's always eluding us.

I'm eager to get to X, which, as I said, thoroughly charmed me. In one poem you mention Frank O'Hara, and I see him as a kind of presiding spirit throughout your book. Your voice is distinctive—to my ear, it's a very American one, too: unpretentious and humorous, yet questioning. The reader strolls along with you, goes for a burrito, runs the bases. There's a disarming casual tone, a joshing friendliness, an easy flow down the short lines and then—wham—the knock-out punch of a philosophical observation, a brief flare of anger or defiance, a surge of longing, a mortal chill. In some poems, you restore a kind of balanced temper or perspective by the end, while in others, that punch comes in the closing lines and leaves us breathless.

My questions fall into categories. I'll let the cat out now: they're Magic and Augury, Consolation and Defiance, Music and Film. Let's start with the first pair, which was prompted by your poem "Magic," with its lines "Why do I expect magic/only when things break down?" You seem to be calling into question here, and in other poems, your own-or perhaps just conventional—expectations or hopes of transcendence or of forces with agency beyond the human. You do this in "Spenseriana" with the lines "It used to be a walk along the Thames/and boom—pixies frolicking./Now we walk the strip mall/and attribute strip mall /corner cyclones whom?" But perhaps the bird imagery in "Augury" holds a clue. Do you look for portents when the ordinary turns extraordinary? If so, is this a tendency that you mistrust or one wish you could build on? Are these moments the starting point of a poem or do you sometimes happen upon them as you write?
DC: My whole life I have intimated a life beyond the phenomenal realm of things. I remember holding a funeral for a Hostess (R.I.P.) cupcake wrapper in my bedroom because its purpose had expired. I used to — that's a lie — I still think that clouds on the horizon contain an alphabet I can almost recognize, but can't parse. I love astrology and augury. The tarot. With Nabokov, I am suspicious of systems because I know that their ideas of order will eventually fail us, but I love the rigorous attempt behind all systems to organize the world for our chaotic brains. Even hard facts come into question if given enough time (I point to a scientific example in my poem, "The Real Work": "Our gravity is leaking / into another dimension—").

Since my book came out I've been trying to find words to talk about 'truth-seeking' in my poems while acknowledging all the doubt above, but my words have been failing me. Recently, I read an interview with the amazing Emily Pettit, who said: "In poems I am looking for amazement rather than truth or an approximation of truth." Bingo! What is important about a revelation is not necessarily what it reveals, but the experience of the revelation and how it changes us in the time before the next one — the next poem. I am always looking for portents, magic, ghosts, signs, patterns within murmurations. There is an innate mistrust when I go on the hunt for these things because I know I will be let down, but that's OK. That's the world — it breaks my heart. The speakers of my poems are always being let down by themselves and by the world, but it doesn't stop them from being amazed by the revelatory poetic process — I invoke a form; I organize content within that form; the form leads me and the speaker to a previously unknown place, a numinous place.

My collected O'Hara goes most places I go. I own two copies just in case. Thinking of the mass of voices and ghosts behind all of our work, our books share at least one common influence: we both mention Piotr Sommer. I have him in a poem; you take an epigraph from his work. How much do you steal from the poets you love, Kateri? What do you steal? I sense the influence of Sommer on your work, but I also sense Hopkins and many others. I'll admit, I know very little about Canadian poetry, and I'm interested in a field of influence that I'm unable to see.

I became a father two years ago, and I am starting to find my daughter in my poems. Listening to you talk about your poems written in / at the small hours of the first years of motherhood, I'm wondering if you think we steal from our daily experience in the same way we steal from poems? I am thinking of 'stealing' in the way that Eliot says good poets do: "The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion."
KL: On influence, ghosts and literary legacies…there's something I should address. When I heard Piotr Sommer read in Toronto, I bought his collection Things to Translate and admired it, but his influence remained dormant with me for a long time because of what I call "the poetry coma." I'd had poems accepted by literary journals since I was 13 and wrote and published through my 20s, then stopped for about 15 years. During the hiatus, I wrote about design, art and architecture for magazines, the web and TV, but I didn't write or read poetry. For various reasons, it seemed almost painful to do so. I started again after having children and I've been reading feverishly (and writing when I can) since then. The book is a mix of early poems and recent ones. The influences are broad. Heaney, (and yes) Hopkins, Muldoon and Bishop influenced the earlier ones. The newer ones were written under the influence of poets as diverse as Michael Hofmann, Elaine Equi and (here come the Canadians) Catherine Graham, Mark Truscott and Gary Barwin. The Canadians are all friends of mine. I fell under the spell of Catherine's collection Winterkill, with its extremely distilled, short poems and submerged emotional currents. Gary's surreal playfulness and Mark's elegant minimalism also won me over. I would say that I absorbed something of the sensibility of these poets and lifted strategies from their bags of tricks. I might be the only person to see Hofmann's influence, but I know it's there in attitude in the poem "Politicos." Here's the opening:

Scare quotes, scare crows, sacred cows
ripped from the headlines,
tossed in the bin. A real mess,
this time, unrecyclable.
Kids are making mountains out of mudhills.
It's all one big smear campaign here.

A Sargasso sea of
celebutantes, starchitects,
those who fall upwards.
Champers on the balcony
chanters below.
GPS led us
wrong way down the runway.
The police put on the kettle
in the rain.
More recently, I've quoted from or alluded to Dante, Chaucer, Herrick, Rochester. You might notice I haven't, er, made many references to Americans. I confess I had a bias against American poetry for years—it seemed a vast, self-confident and self-absorbed place that hardly needed my attention. I've reformed, though! I'm a fan of the work of many contemporaries: Ariana Reines, Joseph Massey, Dorothea Lasky, Chelsey Minnis (you 'll note that some are radically different from the poets mentioned earlier; my style is shifting under these influences). The ease with which one can sample poetry online is very seductive, and it melts borders. I've realized that my previous bias was silly: why should I deprive myself of any pleasure poetry could offer?

I certainly steal from my kids. There's a lot of kidspeak and kidthink in the book—while I worked on it, I was listening to under-fives acquire language, collide images, fracture expressions and coin words. It was delectable. I followed them around with a notebook to capture what they said. Some poems draw on "life," in terms of settings or scenarios, but I think the greater debt is to the way kids speak. "As we strolled past the mannequins,/ you said, "This is the fashion store/ for ladies with no heads." And "Moon, moon, help me, I'm stuck!" or "On the snow hill, you say/ "We are running/from our footprints." The kid's-eye view started to affect what I saw, so that even when I'm not quoting them, I see things their way: "Mitten foliage is scattered by the door./ The floor wears many hats." I wonder, Dan, whether you'll succumb to the same sort of thing in the next few years. I sometimes say that I had kids just for the material…oh, I don't really mean that, do I?

Now I want to ask about consolation and defiance, and music and film. Your poem "Grieving in the Modern World," a short meditation on loss, sadness and desire, leaps from the ancient world, with its custom of women letting their hair down to signal grief in a kind of symbolic liberation, to manic-pixie girls in modern movies chopping off their hair, to a microwave heating your dinner. I would say that with every other line, you're undercutting seriousness or melancholy with a wry twist, which seems characteristic of your work. You end with the mundane, the quotidian, but, then again, the "news hour" can also be relied on to bring stories of grief. And your quick shifts aren't always whimsical. I'm thinking of "Reruns," which takes a tough tone: "A guilty man on television says/ the earth is a screaming/ whore who needs to be gagged./ So gag her. Shut her up/ with a mud shot. A junk shot./ It's so erotic. Like light falling/ hard on the jetty, like chunks/ of charred bone dropping/ from a plastic container." Or "Diamond": "I pushed it into my forehead/ and thought its diamond thoughts,/ its long silence, its emptiness./ I would kill for it, I said./ I know, it said." The latter poem begins mildly, with the image of a baby crawling on a rug towards an entertainment center. About the small consolations you tend to citemdash;fast food, a bath…At times they seem all that's needed for contentment, and at other times like distractions or evidence of human heedlessness. Are you expressing ambivalence about how they work on us?
DC: Every semester I ask the students in my composition classes if they devote any time to quiet contemplation. 'Never — we are too busy' is the usual reply. I press and ask them how much time they devote to their phones, their social media accounts, their playlists. I admit to them that I do not return home from work and sit zazen for 6 hours and then go to bed — I am trapped in the same cycle of diversion as them. Socratically leading the class, I will get one student to finally say: "we are afraid of being honest to ourselves; we are afraid of what is down there." Of course I read and write for hours every day, but I also spend hours hunting Netflix, or scrolling down this or that social media outlet, this or that news aggregate.

At this moment I am sitting in a café in Easthampton, MA. There is a woman with black fingernails sending text message after text message at 9:00 a.m. Across the street there is a man in a black hoodie fiddling with his iPhone. Fleet Foxes are on the loud speakers. I put on my headphones to block out the drift of that music and the two ladies behind me having a grueling conversation — they seem to have been estranged from one another. I just peeked — one of them is crying. There is a massive Coca-Cola truck parked outside the gas station. The Glass string quartets fade in my ears and now it is Radiohead on the speakers. Before coming here I voted in a local election. Three people liked a link I posted on Facebook. Two, a tweet. I am filled with great loneliness — the world smiles when I reach for it, and then it pushes me to another. During the time it took me to write this paragraph I received two texts — one of which was about setting up a time to Skype later today.

When I started consciously writing X, I began with the simple idea that I would include as much of the world as I could. Before these poems, I was terrified of poems that talked about podcasts or scratch tickets — they were not Poetry with a capital P. I wanted that capital P. I was putting the idea of the thing before the thing itself. But now, as the women are downright sobbing behind my back in this apophenic world, I know that our grieving and our joy are surrounded by the trappings of the world that recede and overlap each other at a pace even the futurists would find alarming. Check this. Check that. My speakers in my poems are asking, "Can I look at the shopping cart on its side as the romantics looked at a ruined tower?" "Can I look at pelican covered in oil as Hopkins did The Windhover?" Yes. Yes, I can. The creature is not lost. I fight my inclinations toward ambivalence by writing at it. The gods and the ghosts are still around, it's just a bit harder to invoke them when composing a tweet.
KL: If only you could see my Cheshire Kat-eri grin right now. Your answer sounds like a Chelotti poem-in-progress. Cinema verité in the café. Brilliant! [Note to ed. Eduardo Corral: We are having too much fun. Is this legal?]

In a nod to our hectic-distracted, all-at-once state, then, a quick switch of direction. Music and film seem preoccupations or touchstones for you. In "Migraine Cure," the speaker rejects the all-too-appropriate-for-the-rain Debussy for Desmond Dekker. You sprinkle references to music and singers elsewhere: Pavarotti, Brahms, Mozart, Woody Guthrie, and the daydream of "rockstardom" in "November." I think they pop up more often than writers, although you name-check Sartre and Lorca, and one poem is an homage to Williams. Films are in there, too: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Legend. Perhaps I should mention here that we've haven't actually met! We're connected through social media, which has given me a sneaky advantage—I'm aware, for example, that you like jazz and Jonathan Richman and that we share a love of certain films from the '30s to the '70s. And I think you've gleaned from my posts that I played the cello for years. How do music and film inform your work? Do you think of them as different languages? Do you see parallels to poetry? Are you a wannabe musician or filmmaker? (I confess I sometimes wish I were either one.)
DC: It is true: in a majority of my daydreams I am performing songs I love for my friends or a nameless audience (although I don't play any instruments). I imagine that I am a contemporary Fellini (although I don't know the first thing about making a film). I post about these things I love on social media, and as art so often does, through it I find friends I would never have met. We still haven't met, but we know we have these things in common. Even though I might have come across as trashing social media in the section above, I find that if I use it as a diving board into real human contact, it can be wonderful. I can't imagine a world where we are not corresponding, guiding each other towards new works of art in whatever medium. I have already put in interlibrary loan requests for the Canadian poets you mentioned above!

My brain is hyper-associative — if I am writing a poem and a film or a song happens upon me, I let it in. I have to trust that my readers will follow - and I always trust that my readers will. I was recently talking with Peter Gizzi and he was telling me about all the friendships he has with directors. He said that 'they do what we do.' Yes, other mediums are certainly different languages, but the processes are similar (See O'Hara's "Why I Am a Poet and Not a Painter"). Whatever the medium, I am looking for works of art that inspire me, that give me the sense of the Orphic, the numinous. I might experience this watching baseball or sitting in La Scala or at a poetry reading, a Jonathan Richman concert. I am great believer in inspiration. Yes, I often have to work and work hard at a poem, but I know that certain poets, artists, directors, musicians will give me goosebumps. And when I feel those prickles, my Orphic antennae go short wave. There is no better way to honor these things that move me than letting them into my poems.

I am presently working on extending my lines and pushing past the endings I learned to expect when writing the poems of X. I'm letting the poems pile up without editing them and I have a loose plan to put them all in one document, print them and see if they can tell me what I have been obsessed with as I've been writing this past year. I'm excited because I feel that I'm entering a new emotional terrain, and thus I am using new forms and new ways of writing lines to contain these landscapes. You've mentioned to me in a Facebook chat that you are trying to open up your new work, and also that you are working on a project inspired by the work of an Italian writer. As a final question, how do you see your work evolving as you embark on these new poems? Also, I want to congratulate you openly on winning The Walrus Poetry Prize! Is this poem, a ghazal, representative of your recent poems?
KL: Inspiration, that slippery creature! While reading, I often find that one word or phrase sparks an unrelated thought-the beginning of a poem of my own. I live for those days on which I can feel the brainwaves, when my thinking becomes wildly associative (I'm afflicted by paranomasia—its emergence is often the first sign, ahem) and I have to stop everything to write down lines. Then the work begins. About the chat: Yes, I'm working on a long poem partially inspired by a short poem by Cavalcanti. The ghazal that won the 2013 Walrus Poetry Prize (a pseudo-ghazal, really; I don't use the traditional rhyme scheme or the self-address near the end) was certainly influenced by the ghazals in Anthony Madrid's I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium 2012), although my poem is more heart-on-sleeve than most of his. I've been writing more such ghazals, as well as sapphics, sonnets and poems in unrhymed quatrains. It looks as if the next book will be made up of poems in such recognizable forms.

I'm preoccupied at the moment with mid-20thC filmmakers (the French New Wave and the Italians), and with poets who've grappled with erotic love. Both the besotted and joyous and those who deal in disgust, in discomfort. I'm eyeing Catullus and mudwrestling with Rochester! In the new work, I'm trying to be less guarded and oblique. My recent poems are all eros and agape. I am excited to say that my second collection will be published by Signal Editions, Vehicule Press in Spring 2017.

Thanks for the dance, Dan! One day, I hope we'll meet in a café with the world swirling around us.
DC: Thank you, Kateri! I hope for the same. Let the credits roll!

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761