Friday, December 21, 2018

TtD supplement #123 : six questions for Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout has published 13 books of poetry. Her most recent are Partly: New and Selected Poems and Entanglements (a chapbook of poems in conversation with physics), both from Wesleyan University Press. She has retired from UC San Diego and is now living in the Seattle area.

Her poems “CONTINGENCIES” and “HIDDEN” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “CONTINGENCIES” and “HIDDEN.”

A: In Contingencies an interest in the history of words intersects with observations of the present. I had recently looked up the etymology of the word “contingent” when I saw the two (perhaps homeless) women resting at tables in a supermarket deli. That caused me to look up the history of “askance.” Then, well, I imagine you’ve the story the last section is based on. I saw it in the NY Times. Smart toys now elicit data from children who play with them. I guess someone might also say that the parts of the poem are in one sense or the other “contingent.”

It’s a bit harder to talk about Hidden. I’m always afraid I’m saying too much. The first section comes from having moved north from San Diego to the Seattle area. Seattle may be mild compared to where you live, but it does have an actual fall when the deciduous trees turn colors and drop their leaves. I’ve never lived in a place where that happened! Several trees turn red first on one side or maybe on the top but not the bottom. The second part is more mysterious and I left it that way on purpose. I’ll just say that we moved to this area to help take care of our new twin granddaughters who are now 12 months old. It was interesting to see them begin to relate to each other. If we were around, they would react to us but, if we were out of the way (or out of sight), they had their own ways of communicating. I don’t know how people read the poem when they don’t have that image in mind. I could have told that whole story, but that would have been something else.

Q: How does this compare to the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: These poems are from a finished manuscript called End Quote. I think my work is pretty consistent, though each book has its own character since each book grows out of inevitably changing personal and social circumstances. Of course, I have some long-term interests and habits of thought. I’m often preoccupied by the limits of knowledge and by the various ways we deceive ourselves or are deceived. My interest in science comes from that, I think.  But my poems also tend to incorporate whatever I happen to see or hear in the world around me at the moment. For instance, the Trump presidency and the disasters brought on by climate change are factors in both Wobble, which is coming out in September, and in End Quote. I think Wobble may be a particularly dark book. The poems in End Quote respond to the toxicity of these time, but are also affected by the experience of caring for two fresh faced babies once or twice a week. “Hidden” is partly a response to watching the twins, who were around 8 months old at the time, beginning to communicate with one another in a way that we adults couldn’t understand and which, in fact, the babies would discontinue any time an adult was visible.

Q: You give the impressions that your books grow organically, but very much sequentially, as well. Is this something that evolved naturally, or was this deliberate? Is there ever overlap between the composition of poetry manuscripts?

A: Hmm. When I started collecting work for my first book, way back in the 70s, I was a very slow writer. I mean seven years passed between the publication of my first quite slim volume, Extremities, and my next, Precedence. (In between I did publish the chapbook The Invention of Hunger.) The idea that I could write enough to have multiple unpublished mss. sitting around would have been really alien to me back then. For various reasons, I write more now. I have more time on my hands, but I am also conscious of having less time remaining, I suppose. Then and now, I collect poems in what has become an old-fashioned black thesis binder. This allows me to order and reorder the poems as I’m working on a manuscript. The process is intuitive. I have some sense of how one poem affects the next, as I do of how one stanza affects the next in an individual poem. Since I seem to be writing more quickly these days, it does happen that the manuscripts overlap at the edges. There will be a period of time during which what I write could go into either a nearly finished book or one I’m just starting. In that case, I hope to identify a new tone or concern in some of the poems and separate them out to be the start of something new. Things have changed, actually, since I answered your last question. Now I no longer consider End Quote finished. I plan to work on it for the rest of the year. Some of the poems I write between now and then will go into it and some will be part of a new ms. I made this decision partly because I think my books are coming a bit too quickly lately and partly because I still seem to be writing what I think of as “End Quote” poems. This ms. seems to focus both on natural growth and development (for instance, the babies) and the general toxicity of the world.

Q. Is this something you’ve done before? Returning to a work you had previously seen as complete?

A. Yes. Although something a bit similar happened when I was writing Versed. For a while that book was two different manuscripts. The section called Versed ended with poems written in the summer of 2006 when I found out I had cancer. Before I had surgery, I mailed it off to my publisher. So I thought the poems I wrote after I came home from the hospital and was undergoing treatment were part of something new. The more I wrote though, the more I saw continuities between the two mss. I decided they belonged together after all. I worked on that book for two more years. All that time I expected my cancer would return and that would be the natural end of the book (and my life). But it didn’t happen. Finally, I realized that as long as I was working on Dark Matter, I would be writing in the shadow of cancer. That’s when I knew it was finished.

Q. You’ve had two volumes of selected poems published to date. Does that change the way you view your writing, and the trajectory of your body of work?

A. The first selected, Veil, brought together books done with small presses, some of which were out of print. It was my first book on Wesleyan – and by far the longest book I had ever published. It felt substantial. The second selected, Partly, came out recently, in 2016. I don’t feel as if it changed anything really. I guess I hoped some people who hadn’t been reading me might find it a handy way to get into my work.  I called it Partly because I didn’t want to jinx myself. I didn’t want it to seem like a final summary.

Q. Who do you read to reenergize your work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A. In terms of poetry, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian. But more often, when I feel stuck, I read non-fiction that I suspect will engage my imagination. I went through a long period in which that most often meant reading books about quantum physics by people like Brian Greene, Brian Cox, Carlo Rovelli. But I’m also, increasingly now, interested in reading about cognitive science, neurology, AI research, etc. I also read a couple of books by the biochemist Nick Lane that got me going. I like reading things that are mind boggling, that raise many more questions (at least for me) than they answer. I can take those questions and run with them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

TtD supplement #122 : seven questions for Stephanie Strickland

Stephanie Strickland has published 8 books of poetry, most recently Dragon Logic and V: WaveTercets / Losing L’una, and 11 works of electronic literature. Zone : Zero, book + CD, includes the poem slippingglimpse which maps text to Atlantic wave patterns. Recent digital poems include House of Trust with Ian Hatcher and Hours of the Night with M.D. Coverley. A volume of New & Selected Poems, How the Universe Is Made, is forthcoming from Ahsahta Press in 2019. http://stephaniestrickland.com.

Her poems “e=mc2   :  Not the Whole Story,” “Hum,” “Separation of Messages as a Form of Work,” “Black Glass Horizon,” “Solstice” and “Distaff Tech” appear in the nineteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “e=mc2   :  Not the Whole Story,” “Hum,” “Separation of Messages as a Form of Work,” “Black Glass Horizon,” “Solstice” and “Distaff Tech.”

A: I can say that half of them are ancient (unfinished) poems that I suddenly felt called to readdress, as if their time had come, and half were written last summer, part of a possible chapbook, One Sentence to Save In a Cataclysm.

The older ones are “Hum” and “Separation of Messages as a Form of Work,” and “Solstice.”

“Hum” is a poem of rage and grief, oscillating perspectives.

“Separation of Messages as a Form of Work” treats a truth about coding and decoding quite off-handedly—and yet directly, namely that the message can persist. Which is to say that d  s   i   d   e   r   r  o   permutes to “disorder” (it also includes “désir,” “deseo,” etc.); and C. Shannon is both a citation, see Shannon, and his initial:  Claude Shannon, 1916-2001, American mathematician, electrical engineer, cryptographer, “father of information theory”; and Cue E.D. is, of course, also q.e.d., E.D. being Emily Dickinson. “To simulate—is stinging work—” is from Dickinson 443. Between what you hear, what you see, and the number of layers you discern, requisite work reveals a (indeed, many) messages.

“Solstice” is a direct description of the winter solstice in my part of the world, a turning you think will never come.

Q: How does this compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I am working on a number of these older poems, ones I only rediscovered when a journal solicited poems from me for a particular issue but did not allow multiply submitted ones.

Other current poems seem to come from a sense of possible cataclysm. I explore what kinds of writing I would want to save, or change, or rely on, in order to face this kind of unknown.

Many poets who write from/about/with science want to affect scientists. Others want to affect public perception. I share with Buckminster Fuller an urgent sense that new lexicon and syntax are required. First of all, because language based on ancient physics—the sun rises, the sun sets—does not convey, much less entrain, our current understandings of mathematics, measurement, or instrumentation. The second reason to re-create a lexicon is to make clear how a powerfully imposed science understanding directly affects social justice and all else.

“Distaff Tech” is a tribute to Maryam Mirzakani, an Iranian mathematician, the first woman to win a Fields Medal (the highest mathematical honor), who died of breast cancer at age 40. Her work explored multiple fields, but in particular questions of geometry and topology. She drew her thinking on large sheets of paper on the floor, working alongside her small daughter. The poem contrasts the opening spaces she envisioned with the knots classified by Morwen Thistlethwaite. It recounts many mathematical achievements of women, often not recognized as such at the time, and the distinctly different perspective the “distaff” contribution brought. It also suggests the danger of certain technological perspectives if they are not opposed by what seem to be “marginal” perspectives, marginal in this case on account of gender.

Q: I’m fascinated by the way you use space, whether with the individual line or word, or simply across the length and breadth of the page. Do you see this as a visual structure, or something akin to breath? Or possibly both (or neither)?

A: For me, a poem is always in motion, flying, floating, pausing, in space and across a spectrum:  from internally spoken, to spoken aloud, to handwritten page, to printed page, to any one of various screens, to an interactive interface, to its place in a physical space of 3 dimensions, to hologrammatic space, to a virtual space of any number of dimensions. There is both a (breath) rhythm and a (visual) architecture at any point. I wanted my book True North to move around a pole of the 5 “True North” poems as if they formed a maypole. Still not possible! The print page is a kind of flash capture of a structure in motion. For me it should recall and be a prompt to its other possible forms and yet be firm enough to remain in the mind as an image.

The calligraphic or printed page has of course been deeply studied over centuries. I just read the magnificently produced essay-catalog for the Frankenstein exhibit at the Morgan. I realized that I had forgotten how rewarding a truly beautifully made book could be to read. A phone screen, by contrast, is a display tailored for ad banners and headlines.

Here is a flying poem that is also still in space and different for every walker:

Yinka Shonibare, Wind Sculpture (SG) I, 2018. Hand-painted fiberglass resin cast. Courtesy Collection of Davidson College, NC, and James Cohan Gallery, NY. Photo: Jason Wyche, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.

Q: How do you approach reworking older poems? Are you simply picking up where you left off, or are you completely tearing apart and rebuilding from a different perspective?

A: These three were very close to their final form when I found them. I think I became more willing to accept them as they were and to know why I wrote them. In other cases, though, I have to do a lot more re-encountering to get my intuition or initial impulse adequately accommodated. Some poems are very resistant, yet I still understand what I wanted, just not how to do it. Some get extensively reworked and are usually shorter and shapelier.

Q: Your published work includes digital collaborations; how do your explorations through both digital and collaboration potentially affect the way you approach your solo text-based works?

A: My sense of the number of ways a poem can be expands with digital means. The affordances e-lit offers and the increasing number of forms it takes, as the technology changes, made a deep impression on me.

My digital collaborations are mostly of two kinds. Sometimes, someone else and I seem to have a kind of mind meld as we feel our way to the realization of a project that excites us both equally. These poems are usually based on texts I have written, but these change and become full in ways we both discover, and the process of joint discovery is intensely enjoyable. Other times, it is more of a negotiation to agree on the parameters of a project, and to discover together how the text will be generated or discovered or written or presented.

Preparing a poem for an installation, or as a performance piece integrated with music and dance, is also a very different kind of text work. Nothing is really “solo” when you think about it. You are always working within a positive and negative tradition and with what is happening in the world. I believe each modality of poetry does something none of the others can do, as well, but choosing or finding the most resonant way of working becomes in a way more difficult the more techniques you command. Some projects are so extensive that they require a crew of collaborators.

Q: How do you approach putting together a book-length manuscript? Are you working on individual poems that slowly begin to shape themselves into something larger, or are you working on a larger structure from the offset? How do your books even begin?

A: The answer is different for every book! Transitions between poems are always important, as well as the overall structure, which in simpler books is a through line. Strangely, How the Universe Is Made:  Poems New & Selected, which is forthcoming in February, does have a through line, even though it is gathered from all the books and even describes the digital works. Dan Beachy-Quick says, “…the selections from the books are making their own true book, a traceable concern that widens and deepens … as it progresses.”

My first book, Give the Body Back, is a single sequence focused largely on historical women and women in my family. My next, The Red Virgin:  A Poem of Simone Weil, is a tribute to the life and work of Weil. The way I acknowledged the welter of views about her—for some she is a mystic, for some a political activist, some see the philosopher, and I see her as a performance artist as well—was to structure the book so you could enter it at any point, read to the end and then turn to the beginning, always making a circle, but a different one depending where you started. The poems were titled in such a way that the table of contents is almost entirely alphabetic, resembling an index.

The next, True North, was a deeper encounter with both history and science, different forms of truth-seeking. As I said before, I saw the parts as streamers round a flag pole (which led me to attempt a digital version in very early beta software). The flag pole is made of the 5 “True North” poems which tell you how find true north using only stick and string. The streamer sections are The Mother-Lost World, Blue Planet Blues, Language Is a Cast of the Human Mind, Numbers Nesting In Numbers-Nesting-In-Numbers, and There Was an Old Woman.

The most adventurous organization was for V: WaveSon.nets / Losing L’una. It is two books in one, bound upside down to each other, with a website URL in the middle. You have to literally  turn the book over and upside down and go online to get a complete view! Each section has a different numbering system, one is the usual and one is based on the U. S. government document numbering system. The Vniverse (Shockwave) website was developed together with the book and published simultaneously. The Losing L’una part also has a separate associated digital poem. The text for the WaveSon.nets was written in one concentrated interval, one long scroll of tercets. I organized it into 15-line “Son.nets” which do not necessarily start or end on a given page, but rather run on, in a wave of course. In 2014, this book was out of print and a small multimedia press, SpringGun, wanted to republish it. By then, in an era of web reading, I knew people would be comfortable with the original long scroll, and we presented that way with headers on each page designating which online constellation the tercets belong to. Called V: WaveTercets / Losing L’una, this book has an accompanying iPad app constructed with Ian Hatcher, in software very different from Shockwave. In this app, you can draw your own constellations, and there is an Oracle.

The next book, Zone : Zero, was published with a CD and incorporates the text version of two digital poems, Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot and slippingglimpse. It is also organized in 5 parts:  Zone ARMORY War, Zone MOAT Else,  Zone DUNGEON Body, Zone RAMPART Logic, and Zone MOTE Else. Finally, Dragon Logic, all text! But still in sections:  e-Dragons, Sea Dragons, Hunger Dragons of Unstable Ruin, Dragon Maps, Alive Inside the Dragons, Codemakers, and Afterword.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Simone Weil The Notebooks
Marta Werner and Jen Bervin The Gorgeous Nothings:  Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems
Robert Lax Circus Days and Nights
Muriel Rukeyser
Ed Roberson
Mathematics:  the great surprise of 21st c. mathematics, a non-extractive abundance
Sylvia Wynter On Being Human as Praxis
Louise Bourgeois
Susan Stewart’s “The Suggestion Box”
May Swenson
Wallace Stevens
Sha Xin Wei Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter
Hito Steyerl “In Free Fall:  A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective”
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Buckminster Fuller Tetrascroll
Kathleen Jamie
Kees Boeke Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps
Muriel Rukeyser
Lorine Niedecker
June Jordan “Calling on All Silent Minorities”