I first came across Maureen N. McLane as the author of My Poets (2012), a hybrid of memoir and critical essay in the experimental vein of Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (1985). I fell in love with its candour and wicked wit, its humane gaze and unabashed complexity. A finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award in autobiography, My Poets does elliptically track the arc of a life, though it’s a life told through one reader’s passionate engagement with the poets – from Chaucer to H.D., Shelley to Louise Glück – that shaped her mind.
Most relevant to the present interview is the variety of formal resources McLane brings to bear in My Poets, stretching beyond traditional critical prose to take in cento and collage, breaking at key junctures into verse: ‘Why do you read poetry? / Batter my heart. / Why do you read poetry? / I have wasted my life.’ These lines come from the tapestry of quotation-as-catechism that launches the book and acts out one of its central preoccupations: how far our minds are made out of other minds. For McLane, getting close to Gertrude Stein means starting to sound uncannily like Stein. It’s a tactic – what we might call ‘interpretation by impersonation’ – Jeff Dolven has channelled in turn for his essay on one of McLane’s own poems in this issue of Prac Crit.
For McLane is herself a poet, and a wonderful one. She is the author of three collections all published by FSG, Same Life (2008), World Enough (2010) and, most recently, This Blue (2014), a finalist for the National Book Award. Freewheeling and yet intricately stitched, full of multilayered tonalities, hers are poems will make you laugh, cry and think in swift succession, or all at once. I caught up with McLane on a brief visit of hers to London in June 2015. On sabbatical from NYU where she teaches English, she had just spent a spell working and writing in Florence. Leaning into the sofa, McLane in person was at once fiercely learned and entirely at ease – the sort of interlocutor who feels within minutes like a friend. The same undercover sense of humour that darts through her poems meant I found myself frequently laughing along with her.
We chatted about a poem from her forthcoming book, Mz N: the serial, out in summer 2016. Mz N is a book-length ‘poem in episodes’ charting the growth of a poet’s mind – a verse narrative sceptical, McLane explained that sunny afternoon, about the very possibility of narrative. The echo of Wordsworth’s Prelude is significant: McLane has written two books of academic criticism on the British Romantics, Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry (2008) and Romanticism and the Human Sciences (2000). ‘I had no imagination so I sought out the imaginers,’ recalls My Poets of McLane’s youthful connection with Shelley. The poem at the centre of our interview, ‘Mz N Hermit,’ picks up the cento-ised mantle of that earlier work, acting as a lightning rod for the way the Romantic poets move in her mind.
How much do you remember of the time and physical setting when you were writing this poem? Can you think back to its moment of creation?
The initial seed of the poem germinated in 2005-ish when I had a residency at the artists’ colony Yaddo. I would have to go back to notebooks to see what else was in the mix and how this distilled into this idea of a Mz N character. I wrote a sequence, which is now in the book as ‘Mz N Growth of A Poet’s Mind’. I liked the way it allowed me to move among forms – there’s a little inset sonnet, there’s a little song fragment, as well as more narrative or discursive bits – so that was a very specific occasion. I thought that project was done: it was in my first book.
As to why I came back to it years later, I think it was the process of writing My Poets, which is a very hybrid book, with a lot of different stylistic wagers and gambits, but is very devoted to thinking about reading and life experience, partly through citation and sampling. I started writing some briefer episodes, and many of them were very self-contained. There’s one, ‘Mz N Baby’, which was in the LRB, and there are some others that were very specific, around a relationship or an experience or a reading experience, or in-gathering thoughts about, say, religious crisis.
One of the last things I wrote for the book was ‘Mz N Hermit’. I had this thing emergent over several years, and I felt I really wanted an episode that enacted this intense encounter of readerly, poetic, philosophical, political engagement, that would distill some aspect of the way the Romantics move in me.
Given this book has, in part, been composed in Europe, and in dialogue with European poets, have your experiences of England, Italy, France been important to its sensibility? I note that the hermit thrush is an American bird – to what extent is it your avatar as you travel?
That’s a great question. At first I wasn’t sure if you meant the Mz N book, or if you meant other books… Because, in a way, I think that that kind of Continental preoccupation has animated a bunch of things. It’s funny because maybe I’m more aware of the American accents of this project – and the hermit thrush being an American bird is just one index of that. Also how any person or subject is brought into speech in a matrix of things. The book tracks or generates some of those matrices, whether in schooling, or reading, or interpersonal encounters: what I think emerged were the kinds of inflections you’re talking about.
Certainly a lot of the things in my head come from British Romantic poets and thinkers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which surface very prominently, in particular, in this episode in the book, ‘Mz N Hermit’. And it might be too there’s a reversal: the Romantics carried an idea of ‘America’ in their head: I might be triangulating against that in a certain way. Another ghost presence in a poem or episode like ‘Mz N Hermit’ is Whitman, and this question of what it is to be one among ‘human others’, as I think Wallace Stevens puts it in a poem. That seems to me such a recurring and profound question aesthetically, politically, and ethically. It gets sounded out differently among different poets and philosophers, and I think that that weaves its way through the concerns of this book.
My first book of poems was called Same Life and it was partly about that question of to what extent are our lives a ‘same life’ or not… That deviates from the ‘national’ or ‘European’ question you’re bringing up. I did study for two years in Oxford and that was very important for a lot of reasons. But also I think there’s a lot about one’s absorption of sensibilities, whether it’s through other works of poetry, music, friendships, a lot of which, for me, happened in the US. So sometimes I think a lot of this has to do with mental as much as actual travel. I’m very aware of the potential and disgusting ‘rarefied tourism’ element that could erupt.
That reminds me of something you said in a recent conversation with Stephen Burt, that you might not so much be a ‘travel poet’ as a ‘Questions of Travel’ poet, with a nod to Bishop. The Romantic poets, whose voices waft up through this section of Mz N, are themselves making journeys – wandering eremites of one stripe or another. I was taken by how this poem, as you say, puts together their political utopianism with Whitman and the idea of ‘America’. Are these ‘imagined places’ in Bishop’s sense?
I think that’s exactly right – that sense of one’s own longings, however they’re inflected, politically or sexually or aesthetically. The horizons of possibility are exciting and disappointing and ever-renewable (possibly). And I feel for me one powerful genealogy for that is to be found in British Romanticism. There’s such a profound meditation on both possibility and impediment in poets like Shelley, for example, or in thinkers like Godwin. And then a massive critique in Mary Shelley. I think that a lot of my thinking was so formed in relation to the way they formed these questions, but also with a strong engagement with early American thinkers, whether people like Thomas Jefferson or abolitionists: people who are thinking about horizons of possibility, if not perfectibility, and how they might be sustained; how things at any moment can look in retrospect like a beautiful illusion; how they can look like false idealisations.
But at the end of the day, I tend to return to a node of how thinking and sensing things out in language might yield to sharable pulses. That could be potentially political, could be ethical… How they actually get instantiated in any given life, a community – that’s always what’s happening in real lives. In terms of thought spaces, that’s something I was trying to track in a very strange way in this ‘Mz N Hermit’ poem. I think it’s probably the most ‘cento-ised’ of the book’s poems.
I was going to say that! It’s reminiscent of your play with the cento form in My Poets – a welding together of fragments that feel like they become a sort of collective unconscious given voice in the poem. I have lots of questions about ‘voice’: let me take you to the epigraphs page of Mz N. Your poems made me see Keats’s ‘life is a continual allegory’ in a new way: I wondered if you might be pointing to allegory’s etymology in the Greek not only as ‘other speaking’, but as something associated with the agora – the hubbub of the forum or marketplace as a location for public speech.
I don’t know if that ghosted etymology was conscious, but certainly I think that question of both single and potentially communal speech, or communal ‘being brought to speech’, is so central for me. It’s a thing that is very moving to me when you see it enacted, whether in Greek choral lyric or, in a very interesting way, in Claudia Rankine’s recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric, which very differently navigates this question of community and voice and experience and pronouns.
But I do think, for me, the question and logic of citation and quotation always felt very native: that it was no more ‘my thought’ if, as it were, I thought it, or if Beyoncé thought it. It’s a human thought that a human had. That might be a kind of abdication, but it might also align with my own experience as a choral singer. I’m not currently, but I’ve been a singer in choruses for decades. That sense of both immanent presence and generalizable sound, and coordination that is uncoerced, which is its own little Utopian moment amidst a lot of coercion in life that we all experience in different ways. So I think that intuitively it always felt to me as though my own mind were made out of other people’s minds. My own rhythms and fragments were coming from elsewhere – why wouldn’t poems come from elsewhere? And that doesn’t mean they aren’t much-deliberated and much-composed, but they’re also given or received, I feel.
I think there are many different ways to make and compose and to have a poetics, but certainly My Poets was so much built out of, and an homage to, quotation and citation: allowing oneself to think through others and to be thought through others. That seems to me what most of us experience intensely in intense reading anyway. And so it’s another way of moving along that feedback loop. It’s a way of registering what kinds of absorptions have happened. That was really important to me in that book, and that carried over into this book. Inasmuch as there’s a sort of ‘growth of a poet’s mind’ Wordsworthian registration of consciousness undergoing many torques, I would say, for a lot of people, the growth of their minds is fed – and sometimes badly fed – by whatever is in the air: what Shelley calls the ‘spirits in the air’.
This poem uses various metaphors to think about that process of absorption: one is the way past poets become an ‘ocean for swimming or drowning’ in; another is Frankenstein’s monster, important earlier in the sequence, who comes back here. ‘Mz N Monster’ invokes a ‘body made up of salvaged sewn bits’. Could you talk on the one hand about the ocean, and on the other, about the composite monster, as figures for what you’re doing here?
Well, I think one will see the… seams [laughs] in a project like this, and it’s certainly a kind of monstrosity, an ungainly showing: it doesn’t have an ideal form it’s achieving. It partly evades that whole question, yet knows about that question. As I understand it, the etymology of ‘cento’ comes from patchwork and stitching – one could think about things more compositionally along the lines of people keeping commonplace books or working things up out of orts and scraps. There’s some element of that, possibly, in this book and in some other things I’ve done.
It’s also obviously a borderline sinister metaphor, about willfulness and adultered materials and corruption; there’s something to be said both for and against that too. And also about the ‘aversiveness’ some materials have when you’re dealing with them. I definitely always felt, when I was thinking a lot about Frankenstein in the ’90s that it puts enormous pressure on the category of the human through this monster. At any moment I felt it was a very accurate or ready-to-hand spiritual allegory for my life as a graduate student!
The novel’s so brilliant about structures of identification and it’s such a powerful enquiry into aesthetic ideology. It’s one of those multivalent things that can be endlessly re-read along gender lines, along technophobic/technophilic lines, Promethean overreaching. But I also couldn’t help but find it particularly relevant as an allegory about, in the most obvious sense, alienation; not only alienation as an individual, because part of the problem here is that the creature is denied fellowship, and so thus the need for a mate – his own forced turn to a request for another of his own kind.
That goes back to your question about life and whatever any individual singer might want to make of things, but also in community and the agora – I think Frankenstein’s very brilliant about that. When Victor realises what he’s done and that he’s going to be endlessly pursued by this botched thing, he talks about going back to Geneva, but he feels alienated in his own home and the gates of Geneva shut around him. I think that Mary Shelley is unbelievably brilliant about the coordination, as well as disjunctions, among the sensorium, the community, political structure. You get that in the way she has the Monster’s first killing be that of little William, the little child brother of Victor Frankenstein: the little William who screamed in horror at this monster, who says, ‘Let me go you monster, you ugly wretch, my papa is a Syndic.’ It’s like the babies have already got the state internalized.
There’s that version of things, which is a much more corporeal making or botching. Then there are other, musical metaphors, or oceanic metaphors, in the sense of immersing in a medium. And yet if one doesn’t surface from that medium, one could drown.
In your writing life you amphibiously cross the border between poet and critic. How do the two jostle up against each other in your thinking? Are they happy together?
The episode you have here is the one most inflected by Romantic voices and quotations, and also predicaments, whether about democracies or Utopias or aspirations. But more generally I don’t know that I see poet and critic as highly articulated, different shaded functions – for me. Certainly they can be in a person, and certainly in a culture; and I think that they were maybe closer spawn in another moment. But for me, everything proceeds probably from some a priori register of poesis. How things get instantiated into poems or essays or academic articles, that really has depended on my interface with institutions and communities.
I certainly have felt at some points that I never wish to write another footnote again! That was partly a feeling of enormous tedium and exhaustion with a kind of really scrupulous historicism that I had gotten myself involved in. I think there are many things worth doing in the world. For me it’s been more a both/and situation than an either/or.
Let me take you back to another of the Mz N book’s epigraphs, the Mandelstam: ‘What I’m saying now isn’t said by me.’ I wanted to ask you about Mz N as a character – an alter ego to some extent – and what she affords you by way of freedoms or means that a more straightforward lyric ‘I’ wouldn’t?
I think a lot of things were sustainable through and with a figure like Mz N that wouldn’t have been otherwise… As I mentioned earlier, I had written a shorter sequence, in my first book, called ‘From Mz N: the serial’. That brief portion is also in this new book. One thing this character allows is for more narrative and scene-making possibilities than, let’s say, standard lyric might – though we could argue forever about what ‘standard lyric’ is! But it also allowed for some interesting shadings in terms of perspectival torquings and warps, because Mz N will do X and Y and Z, and intermittently there’ll be a ‘Mz N’ and then an ‘I’: they’re obviously closely related but maybe not identical. It allowed these episodes to sit somewhere between dramatic monologue, narrative and lyric without being reducible to any of them.
It also allowed me to pivot… say, there’s an episode with a lot of narrative in it, then there might be an interruption where there’s a little song-like quatrain. It gave me a really interesting character-engine-device I could work with; and it also allowed me to slip in and out of a close third and a close first person. It gave me, in some ways, more the resources of novelists – towards other ends.
The title ‘Mz’ is, of course, given another spin by replacing the ‘s’ with a ‘z’ – it made me think almost of the pseudonym of a female rapper…
Oh, wow! My next foray – that would be great! Years ago when I landed on that as a figure in all senses, probably it was in hiphop or something. I think I intuitively seized on that as a productive deformation. I mean, ‘Ms N’ would have been very different – like, ‘No!’ [laughs]. There are many tones in the book, and there’s a kind of knockabout quality at times. It did seem like marking it as a character and as a pseudonym or as an anonymn. This was very useful and enabling for me. And yet it also carries the other resonances too: like but not like ‘Ms’.
Were there any immediate poetic or literary precursors in your mind for Mz N? One might think of Berryman’s various characters and avatars; but also the significance of the letter, which happens to be your middle initial: Maureen N. McLane, as your name appears on your books. A little like Kafka’s K, characters are denoted by letters elsewhere in the book too.
I was always mindful of the resonance of ‘n’ as a variable, as it were. I was very engaged with Berryman a while ago – not more recently, but that capacity of a lyric to hold a knockabout drama, and also that you could have some slightly fractured personae within a poem. The ludic pathos of the Berryman is just so incredible, and it’s achieved precisely because you have the ‘Henry’ and you have the ‘Mr Bones’ and you have that ‘I’. I’m 100% sure I learned I things from that.
In another key, some of Anne Carson’s works have been important for me in terms of narrating intensities. In an episodic poem, I think of her poem ‘The Glass Essay’; it doesn’t fracture character exactly – though she does have a character named ‘Law’. But partly all this emerges from the kinds of thinking that went into My Poets, and thinking about a lot of different writers’ extension of possibility for other writers: whether it was somebody like Susan Howe, thinking about her Emily Dickinson, or whether somebody like Alice Notley, her book The Descent of Alette. And more profoundly, that sense that at any moment the question ‘Who speaks?’ subtends any positing of an ‘I’. I always thought both that that was true and that one could write out of that non-origin. That’s why the Mandelstam is very important for me.
I was wondering about the typography of italics as a way of marking off other voices in this piece. I know that in previous works you’ve sometimes had recourse to quotation marks as a way of signaling another voice. What’s the difference for you between those two textures?
There’s so much to these subtle signalings of tone that punctuation marks and typography do. I found, in My Poets, I often wove things in with quotation marks, but also, if I were recirculating something, it would go into italics, because somehow that seemed to me more intimate. It felt less, as it were, ‘marked off’ if it were in italics as opposed to in quotation marks.
To the extent of being more internal or un-voiced?
I do feel it’s tending that way. I really wanted an episode that spoke to the question of being inhabited by powerful poets and thinkers, voices and thoughts in a very specific key. I also didn’t want there to be a sense of jumping out of the head of Mz N or the speaker into a quotation: rather that this is part of the internal weave at this point, and yet it’s not the same thing. I do feel that subjectivity is a tissue of quotation. Not only that, but there were a few times when I wondered ‘Will I italicise this or not? Is this at a threshold where I want to mark it or not?’ These episodes were much more about performing the logic of consciousness.
To what extent is this poem interested in enacting ‘electrified thought’? (As well as flashing synapses, I had in mind horror films’ representations of Frankenstein’s monster!)
That’s my aspiration, but it’s not for me to say whether it succeeds. Of course, behind that is that Frankesteinian moment. That sense of sparks, sudden conflagration, sudden energy transferences. I think most people have that experience from something, whether it be music, or an image, or touch, but I wanted that to be incanted, in a way.
It’s interesting how just now you juxtaposed ‘music’ and ‘image’ as two potential provocations. In this poem, on the one hand, you have the ‘songs / of spring’, the hermit thrush, which point towards your interest in folksong, ballad and lieder – your life as a singer. But on the other, there’s a visual dimension in your poems that feels like it might go back to imagism and haiku – Basho is a presence elsewhere in Ms N – and perhaps also to ‘epigram’ as a material form originally carved in stone. The musical and the visual, how do they go together for you?
I’ve been long interested in this oscillation between what one might call a poetry of evanescence, a poetry of the transitive and the transitory, of the dying tone, of the attack and the decay; and another type of poetry that aspires to the condition of inscription, or toward a speaking silence, or to that aspiration of the apparently merely noticing – what Barthes talks about in his very strange, wonderful book, The Preparation of the Novel, about haiku; the way he wants to theorise haiku, which is, I’m sure, very tendentious, but very suggestive. Those things speak to longstanding attractions I’ve had for different kinds of work and experiences.
I myself have liked very sculptural, highly wrought, highly artificed works, and I also have very much treasured works that appear as if spontaneous, as if tossed-off. Those seem to me opposite ends of a very rich spectrum. I think this work is meant to pivot among those things, or draws on those possible bandwidths in a way that’s eccentric and unfinished, and wants to be not a monument, but maybe a document to the unfinishable.
It’s much more narrative, intermittently, than anything else I’ve done. But it’s also an argument against narrativity, and that’s one reason the book has an epigraph from Galen Strawson.1 I was very taken with his hostility to an equation of a narratable life with an ethical life. He wants to say, ‘No, I don’t feel I have a continuous narrative to tell about myself. I also don’t feel I’m living an unethical life and, in fact, I think there’s another way of being in the world.’ He calls it ‘episodic,’ a mode of being he thinks a lot of poets tend to have. All of this might be super tendentious, but I was very taken with it. He has a couple of wonderful essays on the self and structures of the self.
This is really looping around from your initial question about song and image. But even in their own apparent opposition, I think they point to other things about the more-artifactualised, the less-artifactualised, the history of imagism. And also I’m drawn to a poetry that’s not afraid of silence – that sense, that recognition, that everything comes out of silence.
Thinking about silences, can I ask you about the device you’ve developed whereby, instead of punctuation within a line, you mark a pause with a short space that registers as a substitute for a full stop? What does that visually marked silence offer you that more conventional punctuation can’t?
It’s more treating the line, or the space of the lines and sequences, as unbarred musical measures than as punctuatable sentences. There is punctuation in this book, but it’s certainly idiosyncratic: letting the capitalisation of letters mark the beginning of a new thought or new syntactic unit was one way I wanted to solve that. Within episodes there’s often a lot of interest in sustaining velocity and speed, but also tracking switchbacks of thought; having a slightly larger tablature is a way to give pause without stopping you. That was one solution, as in, ‘This is actually one breath: something one should register, and not just pass onto the next phrase.’
That relationship with ‘breath’ particularly struck me in the sections where you are re-lineating lines of verse that, in their other life, were a very different shape – most dramatically with the long Whitman line. What was it like working out how to re-score those existing voices into your own poem’s shape, its own breath?
I’m always struck by the ghostly presence of metres and measures in contemporary poetries that seem to evade them. And I’m also very struck by how you can get an interesting resonance between background and foreground, in terms of what’s being alluded to and what’s actually in front of you. When I was working toward this episode, I had an intuition as to which passages I wanted to go back to – I carry around most of them in one key or another, and then I’d remember half of one. I guess it’s an enacted re-mediation: when you hold something within you, you hold it within your own physiology. And then the poem has its own, as it were, physiology – if one wants to go with a physiological theory of metre like Wordsworth offers in his own crazy way.
There is a pulse… there is a relatively short line that this work has established as a unit, and that’s the way this poem is going to hold others’ voices, just as any of us hold others’ voices in some strange, semi-choral way within ourselves. And so it seemed to me it would have been very odd to have, say, a full Whitman sprawl: If I remember, ‘the solitary thrush, comma…’ I’ve always been super interested in how syntax works against line break. Whitman himself if not interested in that per se – he gives you big phrasal sections – but Shelley’s very interested in that. So that, for me, was fun! Sometimes I have line breaks within the italics…
Yes, those slashes are striking, say, in the section that reworks Keats’ Hyperion, about the inpourings of poetic inspiration:
I thought there was a sort of double-saturation going on. Hyperion is an extraordinary poem about many things, but one is ‘electrified thought’ and the changing of regimes, the coming-into-consciousness of oneself as either a god or a poet.
Thinking about the change of regimes, the section just after this moves into juxtaposing life in the early nineteenth century with life in the late twentieth. Could you talk about the collocation of those two timeframes in this poem, in terms perhaps of its political aspirations? I guess I’m interested how that radical strain in the Romantics might play out now – whether it’s still viable now.
That possible conjunction is a thing that has been both an endless resource and a goad for me. I mean, is the French Revolution finished or not, say? Are we enduring spasms of the final death of Enlightenment? These are important conversations about periodisation and conceptualisation – and always, if not always overtly, about the horizons of the possible, and what one thinks about futurity at all. That’s a thing I’ve been thinking about for a very long time.
I backed into the Romantics, as it were, partly by tracing the seeds or signs from Modernist poets and thinkers that I was very interested in back and back. I sort of landed around 1750… that sense of the unprecedented emergence of possible human hopes; that that’s a wager that has yet to unilaterally be made good on. And the ongoing… beauty of that wager. And the gap between the wager and its fulfillment. That is one axis of discontent. How do you think about that? I am no political theorist or philosopher, but if you’re sentient and a thing comes over the air, you tend to have some sense of what your political culture says about itself, or what possible human relations are imaginable. For me, some of those horizons were specially charged along sexual and familial lines – what it would mean to queer all sorts of things remains very potent as a resource for thinking, both the now and possible futures, but also rethinking the past.
Thinking about political utopianism and its relationship to the imagination, can I take you to the passage that begins, ‘Let’s shock the corpse / of the necessary Shock ourselves / into the unthought possible’. It ties into what you were describing just now, but also takes us back into that metaphor of electrification. What’s the place of ‘shock’ in your poetics, if any? Perhaps it’s an element more commonly associated with an avant garde poetics, but is it something you think about?
I wouldn’t say I accent ‘shock’ as a necessary element of poetics at all, and I think that’s a major weakness of a lot of militant avant gardeism. But I am very friendly to logics of estrangement. I also think one doesn’t know in advance what will be registered as violent. One might talk about surprise… I’d be more interested in surprise than shock as a thing I would want to endorse in art. Part of these things are what your sense of the prevailing ratios are, and if you think that everyone is going around in a haze of bourgeois complacency then you will endorse an ethos of shock, and you can be a Marinetti and manifesto-maker. If you think in fact we live in a world endlessly producing sensation and shock, then maybe that’s not a terribly vital route for art-making. I’m sort of agnostic on that – I want to see what the works are. But I do think the question of the ‘unthought possible’, that’s something that I think Shelley is very good on in terms of thinking with negation. He has a lot of very interesting things in The Revolt of Islam on it.
The whole framing of this passage with the repeated’ ‘Let’s not… Let’s not…’ – I can see that you’re very much ‘thinking with negation’ here.
I often think that giving oneself, giving one’s fellow citizens, giving one’s students, permission not to know in advance, is a really important and difficult thing. It’s hard even to talk about that because it’s about holding an absence. Keats is very good on this… negative capability, ‘without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, and what it would mean to dwell in those conditions of unknowing, and to tolerate that. I think Winnicott is very brilliant on that psycho-dynamically, and very good on things to be discovered as opposed to asserted. At its best, I think that’s what art does for its maker and for its receivers. But that’s not always translatable into an obvious political situation.
My line of questioning so far has made it sound as though your consciousness is populated by endlessly literary fragments, but of course you’re interested in all sorts of things, including pop culture. Could you talk a little bit about the subtitle of the book as a whole, the ‘serial’, and what that summoned up for you? Is it the TV serial, or the serial novel?
In a way – and this is probably too idiosyncratic – I felt it pointed to the episodic, that there would be installments that would have relation to each other but didn’t necessarily have to be sequential or have a unity. But maybe in the end that’s too abstract, because it does conjure TV, the serial novel, perhaps comic book serials. For me it conjured this possibility of something that was quasi-narrative, yet not unified, and would be episodic.
I laughed with delight when I read this bit for the first time – ‘My aspiration in life / would be to be happy / says Beyoncé O life / liberty the pursuit of pursuit of’ – which is a mash-up of that sample from the beginning of Pretty Hurts and the Declaration of Independence: the track sticking at the end there like a record or CD. I wondered if you had in mind that meme which shows a set of three municipal French doorways whose last has been sprayed by graffiti artists so they now read, ‘LIBERTÉ, EGALITÉ, BEYONCÉ’.
I didn’t overtly, but I’ve certainly seen that meme a number of times. I do think that you even called it a meme points exactly to the thing: it floats in the consciousness of people fortunate enough to have access to that as a thinkable thing. That can show up in pop culture. I mean, look, it’s Beyoncé who’s championing feminism. There’s a discourse on happiness, there’s a discourse on liberty, they’re all really vexed, and yet people want it… they want to talk about it. But also the pathos of that, the pathos of our wants – and so, I feel both of those things very keenly and think that they should be honoured rather than suppressed. But I also think in terms of sampling, mash-ups, etc. I wanted the poem to be open in a non-dogmatic way to whatever came over the transom, and that’s part of what came over the transom. I remember thinking, ‘Well, OK, Beyoncé!’ I feel like, in a good and not necessarily Frankenstein way, we’re all composite.
1 [Editors’ note]: ‘…an Episodic person in whom a form-finding tendency is stimulated precisely by lack of a Diachronic outlook…’ –Galen Strawson, ‘Against Narrativity’
And now a hermit thrush
the monster never heard
nor Frankenstein nor Keats
nor Mz N till this moment
Where are the songs
of spring Ay where &
What are the songs
of your climate
ingeret’s ring the changes
of the changing songs
Did you steep too long
in the tea of your wrongs
Did you break your mind
on hard rocks of thought
Did you find in old poets
an ocean for swimming
And what am I
that I should linger here
Mz N wonders
no longer lingering
on this old earth
Let’s say a hermit thrush
says fuck all but still
it’s nice to hear on Bastille Day
the revolution sends its flares
still up Far and near
did many a heart in Europe
leap to hear
that faith and tyranny
were trampled down
As if In retrospect
you can sort it all out
In the moment it’s fuzzy
Is that an alibi
Isn’t it always clear
who the tyrants are
Everyone feels the tyrant
is someone else or necessary
Let’s shock the corpse
of the necessary Shock ourselves
into the unthought possible
My aspiration in life
would be to be happy
says Beyoncé O life
liberty the pursuit of pursuit of
Let’s not talk about Coleridge
and sadness Let’s not talk
about Virginia Woolf
and madness or Lord Byron’s
badness or Shelley’s drowned
& burnt heart Mary Shelley wrote
her insipid surviving son
What should we do
Après le déluge
Victor left Geneva
Alien now alien in his natal home
The Monster would have left
for South America with his mate
but for her murder & his ice rage
Mary and Shelley left
for France with Claire
Then they left for Italy
Keats left for Italy
Wordsworth left for France
Dorothy and Wordsworth and Coleridge
left for Germany Burns
would have left for Jamaica
Wordsworth left the Lakes
then never left
but for a tour in Scotland
Scott never left
but to scrounge souvenirs
from the battlefield
of Waterloo Southey would have left
for the Susquehanna with Coleridge
Coleridge left for Malta
Byron left for the Continent
Blake every day left
this merely empirical earth
Clare could never leave
the fields he saw
enclosed ill-used his mind
cracking along the fissures
of a broken estate Clare left
for the asylum and left
the asylum and sometimes Clare left
his mind They all left
for death the ‘lost treasure’
of revolutions left
abandoned or bestowed
— sovran voices, agonies,
Creations and destroyings,
all at once/Pour
into the wide hollows of my brain —
They grow in her
They replace her head
with electrified thought
her veins now full
with blood they bled
Then what is life
in the early nineteenth century
in the late twentieth century
in Dante’s Italy
in a Midwestern city
Then what is life
I cried reading old Shelley
but ah Mz N untethered
to the real balloon adrift
in vacant clouds Who
do you think you are
— Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn
to herself, avoiding
the settlements of adulthood
— the poet’s self-centred
seclusion was avenged by the furies
of an irresistible passion
pursuing her to speedy ruin
First Published by Prac Crit.