Prac Crit

Accordingly

by Rae Armantrout

Interview

by Aaron Kunin

Rae Armantrout’s poetry is one of the great achievements of modern letters. Despite the variety of themes and formal strategies, her poems are immediately recognizable for their swift attack, questioning tone, play of scale, and sudden shifts between compositional units.

The year 2015 has seen the publication of her twelfth book of poems, Itself (Wesleyan University Press); a new volume of selected poems is forthcoming. Her numerous awards and honors include a Pulitzer Prize and an award from the National Book Critics Circle (for Versed, 2009), as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. Originally a member of the group of Language Writers based in San Francisco, she has lived in San Diego since the 1980s, and is now Emeritus Professor of Writing at UC-San Diego.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the segmented construction of Armantrout’s poems. How do the pieces interact, and to what extent are they separate? Meeting Rae at home in San Diego, I asked her how she puts a poem together. We discussed her use of various kinds of source material; the difficulty of writing in a changing language, and the even greater difficulty of writing in a changing world; the advantages as well as the dangers of increased recognition; and we also spoke about some of her cherished first readers. After outlining some possible topics of conversation, we turned on the tape recorder.

RA

…I mean it seems like whatever happens to be around me gets into my poems to some extent.

AK

That’s what we are here to investigate. We are recording. What kinds of things were around when you were writing ‘Accordingly,’ and how did they get into the poem?

RA

In general, I start writing when I feel puzzled. It might be something I see, something I hear somebody say. It could be popular culture. The puzzle might be, well, why is that popular? What do people get from that? So there’s usually a question or a sense of puzzlement that starts everything out.

The first part of ‘Accordingly’ was really inspired by that book Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton. (He’s associated with the Object Oriented Ontology philosophers.) I was interested in the book, but I also had questions and doubts. One thing I noticed was Morton had a way of describing objects that was both dramatic and sentimental. He used colorful adjectives to describe objects, like ‘withdrawn,’ object as Greta Garbo or something. But also ‘vibrant.’ To me, ‘vibrant’ and ‘withdrawn’ sound contradictory.

AK

Is ‘incoherent’ Morton’s adjective, or is that your comment?

RA

I put it in quotes so I think it’s probably Morton, although now I couldn’t tell absolutely for sure. My sense was that his description of the object was in fact incoherent, so I don’t know whether he said it or I said it, but that was my take on it. He was slinging a lot of adjectives around. There was tension between the adjectives which he may or may not have been aware of or intended. How you define any object is an interesting question. Is it with a list of adjectives? What if the adjectives pull in different directions? Is an object really a process?

He tends to present hyperobjects as either a new kind of object or a kind of object we’ve just become aware of. So now there are these huge systems – his main example was global warming – that are planet-wide or larger, and also exist in timeframes that are not human timeframes. And they’re menacing. He also uses black holes as examples of hyperobjects, as I recall. (I read this book months ago.) As I understand it, space and maybe time are destroyed in a black hole. So that is a very special kind of object indeed. But to say that global warming is a hyperobject in the same way that a black hole is a hyperobject, I don’t know. Black holes and global warming don’t seem like that natural a pair to me. I understand that they are both large and powerful, but to call them the same thing creates a category problem. There’s a tension between them. You can’t think about objects without thinking about categories. All that is what I was mulling over in the poem.

AK

When we talk about Morton’s book, you have doubts and questions and arguments. To what extent do these responses make it into the poem? ‘Accordingly’ doesn’t suggest doubts and questions.

RA

The word ‘accordingly’ is used casually. It indicates that one thing flows naturally from another. I suppose I meant that somewhat ironically. As soon as you raise the question of accord, you also have the possibility of discord.

AK

And it also has to do with the object’s agreement with itself.

RA

And with whether the parts accord with one another in any given object, and to some extent they do, and to some extent they don’t, which interests me. I guess my poems are like that too.

AK

Do you think you are working against your sources?

RA

Yes. That doesn’t mean that I disrespect them, but if they don’t provoke some kind of question, I’m not really interested. ‘Accordingly’ isn’t an argument. It’s my way of exploring the concept of the object. Morton was only a starting point. People like Morton are asserting that each object has a self that should be respected. But I’m wondering how we’re defining object: ‘The object / hasn’t been itself lately.’ The OOO people might see the table as Table. It has a self. Which is a problematic idea for me. I mean, an atom is a self-sustaining system with its own balance. So is a tree. But a table isn’t really – it’s made out of atoms but it’s not really active. It was put in this form, and it’s still in this form. I’m not as obsessed with all this as it sounds here, by the way.

AK

For Morton, the table is irreducible; for you, a table seems open to being reduced to its ingredients.

RA

If you could see a table with an electron microscope, there would be electrons bouncing around it and into it and out of it. If you could see, at the microlevel, you would see that it was permeable and semi-continuous with its environment. Is an object like a chair really an it? Is it a self? So in writing the poem, I wondered if the same sorts of objections could be raised to a human consciousness being a unified thing. The present is something that the mind does. They say the subjective present is about three seconds long.

AK

Who says that?

RA

Oh, neurologists.

AK

I see! That’s the latest scientific discovery concerning ‘now.’

RA

I don’t know if it’s the latest. ‘A human uses part’ – that’s her brain, I guess – ‘of herself to think / of the rest / of herself.’ But the rest of herself could be not brought into this ‘now.’ You’re never conscious of every part of yourself. To try to bring every part of yourself into this sense of ‘now’ is what we’re told to do when we meditate. The person has to exert some kind of force in order to be unitary. And humans attempt that, with limited success.

The last section is about a flower. It’s actually a flower that I saw in Italy, but you can see it in southern California too, a lantana. It has little flowerets, all of the same shape, and they form a circle or whatever, some kind of a shape, and the little flowerets that form the larger flower are all about the same distance apart. They are sort of like atoms in an object, the little flowerets that the lantana is made of and they have to grow so that each floweret is a certain distance from the other flowerets. There must be a kind of mind involved in the composition of this object. It is literally minding the gaps between its flowerets. The gaps are part of it.

AK

While you were talking I started to understand something I hadn’t before. The ‘labor’ in the last line of section two is also the subject of your poem ‘Control’, from the new book, Itself. Can a thought be truly mine if I am not currently thinking it? You unify yourself in your consciousness only when doing this work, only when keeping this particular thought going.

RA

Right, that’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of that. That’s something we do – we repeat ourselves, because we have obsessions. If you live long enough and keep writing, it’s going to happen.

AK

Do you have the same working habits as before? Are you still testing drafts of poems on a panel of readers?

RA

I think I need to because I seem to be addicted to double meanings and ambiguities. I think puzzles are fun. But there’s more to it than that. It’s about realizing that there’s something in your environment that you didn’t notice at first. I like to reproduce that in a poem somehow. There’s something over your shoulder, a shadow over there that you didn’t notice. Maybe I’m promoting vigilance, or maybe just kind of replicating my own.

So that means my poems are not entirely transparent. Plus they have sections, and the sections may have been written at different times, so there are gaps between them. The reader is invited or challenged to make something of those gaps. Sometimes it’s easier than other times. I try to make it so that the gaps or sections are in conversation with each other somehow.

Of course I realize the poems are not going to be entirely legible. But there’s the question of how much illegibility I am willing to accept, and that’s what gets me back to showing them to certain old friends. Because if people are just going – what?!; people who have been my best readers, I know I have not succeeded. Usually I will start with Ron [Silliman] because he’s willing to play that role. He corresponds fairly quickly, and he has a lot of practice at it. Once in a while, I turn to someone else too, usually if I disagree with him, or if he’s busy and doesn’t answer. One person I turn to besides Ron is actually Lydia Davis, who might seem like an odd choice since she’s a fiction writer, but, you know, we have a similar sensibility.

AK

That doesn’t seem odd. It interests me that you and Davis developed your ways of working in the same place and at the same time.

RA

Literally, to some extent, She used to teach here. We formed a strong friendship, and we have been in touch ever since. I send things to her (sometimes she sends things to me). She’s a good tester for me too. But she and Ron see different things. Once in a while I’ll send something to Lyn Hejinian too. It’s interesting to see how different people read. Like, for instance, I don’t want to overgeneralize, but Ron is willing to accept quite a bit of discontinuity. He likes things to be strange. Lydia is more interested, although not overmuch, in things making some kind of sense. Ron will tell you what he likes, what he thinks works, what he thinks should go, but he won’t really tell you why; he doesn’t spell it out. Lydia will painstakingly tell you why. Ron can be really brutal. Ron will just insult something. He will also be very positive. He will say, fabulous! Or, this doesn’t work at all. Or something even worse. Lydia is more polite, but she picks up on small discrepancies and questions them. When you do this, you get to see, you get to feel how their mind works.

AK

Reading is a very private thing. Most of the time you don’t get to put a microphone inside someone’s head while they are reading.

RA

What people are experiencing, yeah. I know I’m asking people for a lot when I do this. So I’m glad that some people are willing to engage in this with me though it can be confusing and frustrating, because they will all say different things, but it’s also is a real way of being in touch with people’s thinking, and their thinking about your thinking, which you don’t always get to see. Grateful to them for doing that.

AK

Do you feel that you are writing the same kinds of poems that you used to write? Have the strategies changed?

RA

Well, I think that my work is largely of a piece. I have been writing poems broken into sections for almost my whole career. Perhaps lately I’ve been writing quicker and maybe, if I finish things too quickly, I don’t allow enough different material to come into the poem. If you just wait, then more diverse material will accumulate to draw from. So the poem I’m working on now, I decided to put away just the two parts I do have, to see what arises in a few days or a week, instead of trying to finish it right away. I’m trying to slow down, the idea being that if you rush things, they might turn out too consistent.

AK

You just used the word ‘sections’; earlier you mentioned ‘parts.’ What term do you prefer for the segmentation of your poems? These compositional units are loosely defined – a segment could be one word, or a line, or a stanza, or a few stanzas, or a prose paragraph. It seems that I have been calling these things segments. They could also be called units.

RA

I usually say ‘section.’ Sometimes I say ‘part.’ ‘Segment’ works. Any of that works.

AK

Or cantos.

RA

I never call them cantos.

AK

I just thought we should clarify that. What can you tell me about the formal relationships between the parts? In terms of scale and proportion, for example, they are roughly the same size, but different shapes. There’s also an effect, almost a kind of a refrain, where sections two and four put emphasis, almost equal emphasis, on the word ‘now,’ which has its own line, its own stanza.

RA

I think number two is shorter. I guess the fourth one looks like it’s the same size, but only because it’s suddenly double spaced.

AK

Yes, I was wondering about the spaces in section four.

RA

Maybe I just wanted to slow it down. I wanted emphasis on ‘is minding / the gaps.’ It seems like the lantana has more power in the poem than anything else. The human is trying, but her effort is ‘labor intensive,’ which makes it sound like she’s having some trouble keeping all of herself present. In the beginning there’s a tension around the definition of objects. Later there’s some disjunction in the social scene in the hotel. So it seems like the flower is the most successful at this objecthood, and has the greatest authority.

AK

The fourth section has the most striking figurative language. You attribute intellectual powers to the flower. The flower is acting, but its activity is not laborious like the mental activity in section two.

RA

The flower’s activity probably really is laborious too. Mind the gap is a phrase I love from British railways. So the gaps between the flowerets are filled with the plant’s mind. Which would make all of these OOO people happy, that part of it.

AK

Something else that happens, a characteristic effect of yours, is how the figure at the end of the poem works its way up through the other segments. The juxtaposition of the segments does something figurative. It never quite becomes comparison, but it makes a figure. Maybe a figure of speech that we don’t have a name for.

RA

Yeah, I think that it’s a kind of quasi-metaphor, without the apparatus of metaphor. The human trying to pull herself together and the flower pulling itself together or having pulled itself together – you could say that one is like the other. You could turn that into a metaphor, but I just don’t. Maybe they form a semi-continuous object. I put the parts together, and allow that potential metaphor to hang in the air. So you could say no to the metaphor. You can say: no, these things are not alike. But the possibility of their being alike has been raised. What I thought you were going to say when you were talking about part two, ‘This is labor intensive,’ leads in my mind to the social situation in the hotel. The musicians do a kind of labor.

AK

The control, achieved through so much effort in section two, here belongs not to the fellows at the Rockefeller Center but to the musicians who are entertaining them.

RA

The musicians are almost ironically naming the ‘fellows.’ That’s how it seemed to me. Full disclosure, I was one of these fellows. I was lucky enough to get a residency at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio. Poor me, huh?

AK

Somehow the control that the musicians have seems questionable to me. It’s because of their iPads. At some point in the past few years, I can’t remember when I first noticed, you would go to hear a reading or a performance, and the reader or performer would take out a tablet or phone, and the text would be read from their device. To me, especially today, after a couple of days of technical disasters with the tape recorder, and with my general primitive superstitious relationship to technology, that seems like a kind of carelessness, or if not carelessness, an unwise trust in the technology.

RA

They would probably tell you it’s in a cloud somewhere. I don’t even know what that means. You can store your data in a communal entity called the cloud.

AK

They don’t trust the device, but they trust the cloud.

RA

Yeah. Some celebrities have gotten into a lot of trouble for storing their personal photos in the cloud where they were of course accessed by tabloid journalists, and pictures of them were published.

AK

That’s how it happened?

RA

Yeah, that’s how that happened. The cloud. No one cares about our poems on the cloud, but you have to be careful what you put on the cloud. I have never put anything on the cloud myself.

AK

I wanted to ask about the tone in that passage, the scene where the musicians are reading music from their iPads. What does that look like to you?

RA

There’s a certain tension in it between the fellows from the center who are privileged – if you want to see what the rich live like, you should experience this residency – and the people who are entertaining them in this hotel. People from the center come in and kind of take over the dance floor. They wanted to hear music that they knew. (I’m guessing. I was a newbie at that point.) They must have been a known quantity because as soon as they came in the musicians changed from playing what they had been playing to pulling up ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ and ‘New York, New York’ on their iPads. ‘Rockefellers,’ right?

AK

My first association with that song is ‘Young Frankenstein,’ where Peter Boyle, playing the creature, sings it, except you can’t make out the words, because he’s moaning and groaning. Why did you choose those songs?

RA

You know, I didn’t make it up. I seldom say, ‘You know what would be a great song?’ and then make it up. I just don’t. It feels like cheating or something.

AK

You wouldn’t change the song to something more interesting?

RA

No, I don’t know why. I never have. I just wait for moments to arrive and be the right moment. Obviously I pick and choose, but I choose from things that I really see, things that really happen, things I read.

Source references are more or less ephemeral. Probably some people will always be familiar with Kant unless we go into a Mad Max kind of scenario (which is quite possible), but people will soon stop being familiar with Duran Duran (if they haven’t already).

AK

Their songs may have an expiration date.

RA

They may have already expired for a lot of people. That’s a risk that you take. One time I was giving a reading somewhere and a girl who wanted to be a poet questioned me about using contemporary references and popular culture in poems, and I started questioning her back, saying, Well, okay, would you use the word ‘car,’ and she said no, she wouldn’t. I said, would you use the word ‘glacier,’ and she said, yes, and I said, well, the glaciers are disappearing pretty quickly. If you think cars might stop existing, well, so might glaciers. You’re going to have very few nouns in your poem. The stars are going to be around longer than the earth – I think you’re kind of stuck with them.

AK

I sometimes have the strange feeling that I have hallucinated the sources of your poems. My recognition of the source always feels a bit dubious. Maybe it’s all in my head, and not in the poem. Like in your version of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet Three’ – which is more aggressive, very much working against its source text:

SONNET 3

                                        after Wm. Shakespeare

Your dad told me to tell you
how good you look to him right now.
Check yourself out. (I’m sure you do.)
You’re a very pretty boy.
But the thing is, that won’t last
Have you ever seen a pert old man?
An insouciant septuagenarian?
I thought not. They’re invisible.
And you’ll be invisible too!
What will your dad have
to look at then? Do you think growth
rebounds each year? Wrong!
It has to be outsourced. Sublet.
Get with the program.
Your dad will be watching.

RA

A poem you probably know well.

AK

Yeah, I have given a lot of my life to thinking about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Your version is really a travesty.

RA

That sounds negative. Come on, it’s funny!

AK

I mean, it’s a travesty in a technical sense. Travesty is a wonderful genre, with a distinguished history, and, yes, very funny. What makes your version a travesty is that you don’t engage with the poetry of Shakespeare’s poem – the figurative language, the sonnet form.

RA

Again, I started with a question. If S. wants to tell this young man he’s attractive, why does he do it in such a perversely indirect way? I understand this is one of the procreation sonnets, so the gist is, I’m attracted to you beautiful boy so why don’t you get married and have kids. That’s a very indirect way of saying I’m hot for you, right? Another possibility is that a patron of Shakespeare’s was connected with the young man. I made it into the young man’s father – with no historical justification.

AK

You changed the gender.

RA

Well, I say, you’re a very pretty boy. It was written to a boy, right?

AK

Sonnet 3 is mostly about the beautiful young man’s mother.

RA

Really? It refers to the mother not the father. You think it’s about the mother? Anyway, I use ‘Dad’ in a different way than Shakespeare was using the mother. My introduction of the dad has more to do with the role of the patron. Because my poem turns out to be ‘about’ the power structure and the economy. Dad works better there than Mom does because dads are generally in charge of the world.

AK

It’s interesting that you ignore all of Shakespeare’s figurative language and the sound effects, and concentrate on his argument. The lyrical element in your work is absent in this poem. I would contrast what you’re doing with Harryette Mullen’s travesty of Sonnet 130, ‘Dim Lady.’ ‘My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. / Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser.’ Her poem doesn’t sound like Shakespeare either. It’s modern and colloquial. But she is working with the same tropes as Shakespeare, and travestying them.

RA

If I was going to try to do Shakespeare’s form and match his sound I would be too intimidated to start, so I decided to go in a really different direction. What if I made this as plain and blunt and coarse as possible? I do keep some of the figurative language. The poem starts: ‘look in your glass and tell…’ (I hope that’s right.) Well, I say, check yourself out – in other words, look in your mirror. I’m trying to keep a relation. I just put it into vernacular.

AK

‘Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest, / Now is the time that face should form another.’ If the young man spoke in Shakespeare’s poem, I like to imagine, he could say that his face already has ‘formed another’ face in the mirror image. He has carried out the entire instruction just by looking in the glass. Your notion of invisibility is interesting.

RA

One of my ideas about age is that people can’t see you any more.

AK

Is that true?

RA

It’s for sure true for women. I mean, you know, in a good and a bad way, If you’re a young woman walking in the street, everyone knows people are going to call out to you. At least, when I was young, I would get all kinds of, hey, Mama! That stops at some point – you don’t even have to be old, you just have to be forty. All of a sudden, there’s a silence and you’re glad because the catcalls were essentially hostile, but it’s also weird.

AK

And that silence means not being seen.

RA

Yeah. They’re looking past you to find some young woman to catcall. I think people don’t really like to look at old people, especially at really old people. If you’re older they think you’re probably not going to be useful to them. Unless because of your social position or something.

AK

I spent a pretty good part of my life trying to be invisible. Or trying to display myself in a way that would not draw attention.

RA

But now you’re wearing a hat and a vest. I spotted you right away.

AK

Well, yes, now I’ve reconciled myself to a kind of visibility. Invisibility never really worked for me before, anyway, because I used to neglect my hair, and my tangled hair always made me visible from a considerable distance. But I was going for invisibility, in the way that I dressed at least. That makes me think of a story of Lydia Davis’s. I think it’s called ‘City Employment’?

RA

I think I’ve read that, but I don’t remember.

AK

It was the first or one of the first stories of hers that I read in the nineties. Young women are being employed by the city to call you and ask for Lisa. Older women have been hired by the city to wear strange hats. You can see them all over the city, glancing up suspiciously at the hats they are wearing. I wonder if that was Davis as a young woman thinking about the invisibility of older women?

RA

I like to be sort of invisible or at least unreadable when I walk around. I assume Shakespeare’s young man, who is perhaps vain, would not want to be invisible. He is the object of his father’s attention (in my poem) for one thing. ‘What will your Dad have to look at then?’ The poem introduces the father as some kind of creepy voyeur. I don’t know how I came up with that! Except that I have a perverse mind. Part of my impulse was to make it as creepy as possible. My reading of the original poem was, ooh, this is a little creepy, then I decided, okay, I’m just going to amp up the creep. The only thing that makes me sad about my version is that it’s only 13 lines. I wish it was 14. Maybe people won’t notice because it looks probably about the right length.

AK

I’m starting to understand something about how you use your sources. In your version of Shakespeare’s sonnet, there is a reduction to argument. And when you write about a narrative – a movie or something – you reduce it to plot. You don’t present anything like the experience of the movie.

RA

As if you were to see it from far away, and it’s small?

AK

I think abstraction is the word that I want. Something like the effect that meter has in some poems. Turning this familiar work of art or pop into an abstract pattern. Turning the song into a formula. We’re going to have to edit this, but I feel that I did finally manage to work my way into the idea that I was trying to articulate.

RA

Maybe you should say it again.

AK

Okay. The reduction of the whole human experience of a work of art, a book, a movie, a song, to a continuous abstract pattern.

RA

I like that. Maybe we have enough?

AK

I think we have covered everything in my notes. Except my own mixed feelings about Object Oriented Ontology.

RA

We can turn the tape off, and then I want to hear about that.

AK

One more. Have you ever used one of your poems as a source for another poem – looked back at a poem and then narrated it, or argued with it, as you would with someone else’s work?

RA

That sounds like a good idea! Uh, I don’t think so, not consciously, but that sounds like a good idea. Maybe I will!

Accordingly

by Rae Armantrout

      1

The object is ‘vibrant,’ ‘withdrawn,’
and ‘incoherent.’

A small range of times
co-exist within the object

or, if the object is large,
it may extend through times

that are unwilling
to co-exist.

In this sense, the object
hasn’t been itself lately.

      

      2

A human uses part
of herself to think
of the rest
of herself as existing

‘now.’

This is labor intensive.

      

      3

The ‘fellows’
from the Rockefeller Center,
a villa on a hill in Italy,
go dancing at a lakefront hotel
to the sounds of a string trio
who play ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’
and ‘New York, New York,’
reading music from their iPads.

      

      4

Now

a flower

made of flowerlets –

a lantana –

is minding

the gaps

      
      

First Published by Prac Crit.