Jane Miller: One begins I began I think, by believing the Imagination is more astonishing that anything one could live. But then reality opens and opens. The imagined and the real increasingly play out their actions in syntactic arrangements that time and mime the dislocutions and dislocations of our age. Where, in the body, is the real poem the body one lives in, the body of land one is born to, the body of water the earth largely is. These bodies, telescoped large or, if we imagine, microscopically small, affect diction, syntax, line length, breath, stanza, thought...Endless exploration of the body of the universe, which so obsessed Blake, say, is virtually the same today. Really, writers are still at that primal confrontation; what is this body I am dealing with? Where, in the vast, emotional, immature self is the one unsentimental deed that will access language of great refinement?
JE: You always have such fabulous titles! They unfold and reverberate in the reader on so many levels at once; I read all of your titles as bridges: August Zero, for example, as a bridge between female sexuality (Irigary in the "Zero") and notions of the political, a meeting place between them in your new book. Would you talk about what work you intend for a title to do in an individual poem and between poems?
JM: A title, I suppose, is like a haiku in that it doesn't involve the meaning of a thing but the "happening" of it. A title, I believe, ought to occur, or predict something is going to occur, with language itself, rather than subject matter. Finally, a title really ought to bring into balance the whole rest of the poem. Tess Gallagher's poem "Two Birds Walking," for example, isn't about birds, walking, or birds walking. It's associative, as opposed to figurative. That is, quite literally, something results from an association with something else. This is different from comparing one thing to another, directly or indirectly. A title needn't be picturesque, but rather an independent gesture, sure and indifferent. Indifference is a form of distance I believe a poem requires from its title. This indifference, even disinterestedness, will eventually collapse, if the poem works. The title becomes a small, dignified ritual and is therefore not servile in relation to the whole poem. It is substantive without displaying intention; it is the least obvious of erotic encounters.
I want my poems to be as intimate as a couple making love at night on a beach, and I'd like the reader to roll off of them afterward, completing the triangulated relationship, to feel the sandy curve of the earth with his or her own belly. The height of summer and the cold mathematical abstraction of the title August Zero aren't meant as a commentary on our lives as much as an experience of them. The trochaic beat, for example, as opposed to the more familiar iambic, is another way to interpret the beating of the heart. When Denis Johnson writes of "the ambulance's ruby element," he is making something alive, to be experienced physically. Roland Barthes talks about how this moment, so natural to haiku, is like a child pointing to an object, but the object itself is nothing special. Johnson's "ruby element" is a moment of enlightenment about our age, our natures. Yet it's "nothing special," simply beautiful. This is the work, that is, the play, of language.
JE: Could you talk about the process of writing Working Time which is such a beautiful paean a long lyric really to the orchestral capacity of language as both a medium of elasticity and of reference? In particular, I'm thinking of how you describe the poet's milieu as a "countryside accessible to others" and how, after moving to new places, you found those places "writing you." What is the relationship, for you, between place and the activity of writing poems?
JM: When I left the country for a year, the blankness of being outside of English forced me to confront and describe the landscape in front of me (Spain, Italy and southeastern France) and the culture behind me (North American.) It seemed a pretty typical thing for a tourist to do, and I loved the lightness of the day that included some of that kind of writing in it, not serious, not mindful. There was a lot of delight in it, thinking about poetry and country. I was with the poet Barbara Cully, and she helped me. She taught me to spiral my design. I loved playing with the triangulation of art and culture and travel. I wondered in Working Time, and some of my wondering comes to nothing. My hope is that some passages open onto real terrain. If the book seems lyrical, I believe it's because I struggled to get to the bottom of the places in which I found myself, and this struggle always occurs, for me, through a coagulation of memory and desire. Hence, it has a crystalline quality, is brief because, at the same time, the struggle is pre-empted, distracted by chance and fate, that is, by "world." The preoccupation with the environment that so many of us feels is, I believe, the extension of our fascination with our own bodies. That connection is an ancient and obvious one, and may be, at times, as simple as, I feel high at the top of a mountain, I feel dreamy in the fog. Then the complications ensue, of course. Crossed winds, cacti with shallow root systems, mist on irisesthese are spirited happenings which preoccupy language.
JE: Moving from the subject of place to the issue of time, since we are inevitably (and sometimes ineluctably) citizens of both, would you talk about how you work with both the "perfect" (atemporal?) and with the "conditional" in your poetry, again to borrow your terms from Working Time?
JM: The "perfect" moments in one's life one thinks of Spaulding Gray in Swimming to Cambodia "wanting to have a perfect moment" before he left Southeast Asiathese moments that are epiphanic and emphatic and illustrative are also deadly, in that time stops for us in them. Since you're asking about my own work, let me say that when that kind of a moment starts to take me, I have to quickly counter with a corrective motion against what could seem exaggerated, overly-dramatic, tiresome to others. One person's high is not necessarily another person's. Also, I'm very aware of my responsibility to the audience to keep the poem "moving"motion and emotion being relatedand I find that happens best when I break into the illusion of depth of field with accompanying contradictions and confabulations. Hence, any obsession I have with capturing some "perfect" moment, some meaningful image, some revelatory idea, gets met by an eruption from outside. I always have a fear that a composition will become dressed with a particular aesthetic property and as a result reduce the truth of the depiction. Such truth always involves sacrifice, giving up, cutting off the intimacy one had in order to let in other versionsdoesn't it? Poetry for me is an adventure along the seam, the edge of representation and duration.
JE: In your prose, you've written that, increasingly over this century, poets have had to negotiate with the inherent multiplicity of the image and with, as you've called them, "parallel explosions of meaning" (vis a vis narrative paradigms driven by epiphanic desire.) This made me wonder about how such expanding notions of the self are intimately involved with the retrieval and survival of the world (ecologically, morally, aesthetically.) Having seen how this connection is structurally played out in your poems, I wanted to ask you if you would comment on the relationship between self and world?
JM: The self and the world, space and timeWestern consciousness thrills in opposing and integrating lively elements. The selves we are make meanings for other selves on personal, metaphoric and universal levels, much of which we're happily unaware of. Poetry, it seems to me, works in subterranean ways, impacting over time like geo-plates under the earth. Chekhov made a deep impression on me, if you'll forgive the analogy, like a shift deep under the earth, simply by trying to get the description of the light right on an officer's brass button. This local concentrated energy is in some mysterious energetic relation to "world." It's gotta be! My obsession with antics stops at the huge door of the world. I don't feel I have the right to "take myself outside" so to speakthat is, the right to wander aimlessly, advertising myself. I always feel myself bumping up against, well, the rest of the world, utterly overwhelmed and ashamed and thrilled, forced to begin again in the deepest, most private place. Lucky dogs! who find their way home.
JE: You've written that "the grace of contemporary poetry is resistance" and that "the function of the poet is ample in our culture". Would you elaborate on these insights?
JM: Frederico García Lorca's brother Francisco said that Lorca addressed himself to simple persons, or to what there can be of simplicity in persons who are not simple. Whether one agrees to do this or not, we must at least admit that we are in relation to those around us and that our decisions about linguistic and aesthetic issues reverberate among others. Lorca's plays are joyous and catastrophic physical acts which are emblematic, familiar: a wedding which ends in bloodshed, a wife who eats her heart out because she has no children, then murders her husband. These sound like soap opera plots or newspaper reports. The artist in our culture must "cut to the chase," to use one of our most popular and cynical phrases but how? with what in mind? to reveal what? about whom? and why? This is popular culture's journalistic overlay, and as poets we have, I believe, a responsibility to participate not only in reportage but in daily calculated acts of resistance to the camouflaging of the truth. There are calculated erasures of people and events going on all the time, and we must find a speech to retrieve them.
E: What were the early influences in your life and in your reading which generated an interest in poetry? I'm remembering strains of Rimbaud and Lorca, perhaps the line lengths of Whitman (via O'Hara) in Many Junipers, Heartbeats...
JM: I got started with Frank O'Hara. I really felt like I knew him, and that seemed amazing. I mean, after all, who was Whitman, who was Rilke, who, even, was Plath? I had just started my real life, in 1970, in California. I was living in Humboldt county, painting and studying in a master's program in English. O'Hara, of course, had worked at the Museum of Modern Art, written about art and lived a life I hardly knew existed. I thought I was supposed to study literature and teach literature and not tell anyone I was an artist. The women writers I'd heard about were suicidal or dead. Or lonely. I was painting these large, heavily-oiled, heavily-rouged portraits of my friends called "fat women in chairs." Maybe I was thinking of Gertrude Stein in her big sofa seat. At any rate, during those few years in the rain I read books and painted. When I took my first teaching job at Goddard, my eyes fell out of my head. I was all imagination in those days. You know Paul Bowles' book Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands are Blue? I thought like that, in color, shape, blocks of light, images. The line never stopped for me because in the imagination, there's no air, nothing for the breath to bump...Finally, the poet who really opened my soul was Lorca. His canto jondo, his gypsy ballads, his prophetic poems these tortured and frightened and awakened me. His images of love, of war and murder, of landscape, hit me hard. His work seemed so personal and yet impersonal and, furthermore, altruistic. I realized, through Lorca, that at the bottom of a soul lie the common artifacts and images of the race, the stuff that's going to be available to build from, if there even is going to be a rebuilding. Isn't this the poet's function in the world, to call up essences, essentials? Our acts revivify the random image pool and the thought flux that is, eventually, a poem.
JE: In Working Time, you make an analogy between the poet's method of pursuing the essence of beauty with the process of "enfleurage," making perfume, an analogy which also permeates Black Holes, Black Stockings. How do you conceive of beauty, and how has that conception changed for you over the years, from book to book?
JM: Oh, I'm still a sucker for beauty!... Seriously, aren't our hearts and souls all gathered up together? Beauty for me is still caught up in that other megalopolis, truth. The physical evidence of our lives increasingly seems embodied in spiritual designs. When Olga Broumas and I wrote Black Holes, Black Stockings, we were primarily engrossed in describing a place, but, predictably, place became place of mind; the book was written in a spring and summer that seemed to last a year, years. Then beauty of place and time the Mediterranean in bloom turned into a play of language. Looking back on that book, love seems to be everywhere erotic, pacific, humorous love. We both gave ourselves over to the text, cutting up, clearing out, leaving linearity behind. In my heart, this is still what is aesthetically beautiful to me: the free spirit of a text. When I wrote Working Time, I wanted to honor certain places which are, paradoxically, simple and rich, and therefore the language had to be dense. I'm sure a lot of readers get lost. Well, as Chet Baker said, "Let's Get Lost." In Roland Barthes' beautiful Empire of Signs, he isolates a certain number of features and deliberately forms a system, which he calls Japan. But not to represent Japan; I believe he says, "the author has never, in any sense, photographed Japan." His is a book where language is disturbed, where the situation of the person is chaotic, and Barthes is free to exempt meaning from his entertaining notions of "Japan." This kind of exquisite exemption from our Western analyzing of reality (or describing or representing reality) allowed him to, as he put it, "write gardens, gestures, houses, flower arrangements, faces, violence." I find this "method" beautiful, and I function well in a broken landscape, even though I am both aware and unaware of the cost of such an intellectual and emotional decision. I doubt this has changed much for me over the years.
JE: You've often been characterized as a "love poet," a fairly circumscribed field of exploration (for women) in the canonical sense. What, for you, is the activating and engendering capacity of the love poem as a compositional site?
JM: I've always felt that poetry begins in a powerful emotional seed. Some artists are more inclined to bury this emotional energy than others; I prefer to bloody the backsteps. Is that love? Let's say it's Eros, the friction of creation, working the language. Before I realized who I loved, that I was a woman who loved women, I loved words. For me, the transfusion was simple to be alive has always meant to be in the service of love, and not for the kicks of it but for the whole psycho-spiritual spectrum. What else is poetry for if not to serve love? I suppose one could answer that poetry has many functions, but what gets a poem going, what is a poetic voice, and how does the voice become trustworthy? It's got to sound human, filled with the burden of reality. It's the simple notion that poetry must be embodied, and not in the sense of promoting one's personality. You can't tell from Akhmatova's intimate work whether she was moody in the mornings and charming at night; you can't tell from Dickinson what her smile was like; you can't tell from reading Lorca whether he was fickle, etc. Yet, paradoxically of course, all is revealed by the finest poetry in the sense that we feel the person deeply. Gesture and comment and music and tone reveal information about the speaker, whether she or he knows it or not. Certainly the Language Poets and now this group includes everyone who can no longer write about the self without a pausehave made us reconsider the value of the personal in art, and this correction was necessary given the solipsism into which American poetry had fallen. In other words, the world must be as present in a poem as the voice adoring, declaiming, disowning, or forgiving it.
JE: Would you talk about the effect other art forms have had on your life and on your poetry: as a painter, pianist and flutist yourself but also your explorations of film, video, music and documentaries? What, in these other media, informs your own methods of composition and signification?
JM: I love to lose myself in art. But there's also something about material that fascinates me how the piano is really a string instrument, for example, or how the clay from New Mexico, say, can be so utterly different from that of Japan. The concentration that goes into a work of art seems to me to be the center of reality god help me! and I am drawn to people who bring tremendous attention to what interests them, as well as being drawn to the made thing. As far as my own involvement in the arts, I'm a serious beginner. I feel free to play my flutes and cry at the piano for no reason. In my study of other arts forms, I've found revealing messages for poetic composition. The documentary filmmaker and the poet, I believe, have a lot in common. I can feel the work that has gone into the shape of a story or a record of an event, the frames methodically and surreptitiously unwinding, and this sense of inevitability, of the camera being "on" in the face of mounting evidence, has led me to a sense of the inclusiveness of a poem. Although I don't write very long poems, the density of my work has to do with this. I realized as a writer I was "free" to do what I wanted, but freedom has responsibilities, though not "meaning" necessarily. In fact, to compose with a particular meaning in mind is boring, whereas the world is alarming; literally, the world's alarm goes off whenever one gets too inward. Those art forms that indulge themselves in meditation must, I feel, gather a strong elemental note the pun, simple but also physical aspect around their inwardness. One can see the struggle in modern dance in the 90's coming to light many troupes using electronic language boards or "signs" to encode a work for us as it is being "acted" i.e., danced out a flash of billboard that juxtaposes a phrase with or against or unrelated to the movement below. These juxtapositions often fail in dance and in poetrybecause they are clumsy and distracting, but the impulse toward simultaneity, vitality, contradiction, toward the impersonality of the final representation is worth pursuing. Here nothing is nailed down, nothing certain. This is the effect of alienation Brecht speaks of regarding theater, a total and finally unnerving spectacle.
JE: Returning to Black Holes, Black Stockings, what does the collaborative process hold for you in your art and life?
JM: Black Holes, Black Stockings is the first and only time I've done collaborative work as a writer. I've fooled around with other musicians, but this too has been largely in the company of Olga. She really introduced me to, and guided me through, the wonderful world of self-effacement. Everyone should consider disappearing for a while into another voice! Very liberating! I suppose it works when the collaborators are emotionally disposed toward such a project. Our goal was to come up with a voice that sounded like neither of us, so that the pages Olga wrote were indistinguishable from mine. It must have worked to some degree because to this day, we delight in arguing about who wrote what. In allowing someone else into my work, I realized that composition was more dynamic than I'd thought before, and that what was sacred about language, for me, was not so much its genesis as its transformation. I now revise more freely, and the process itself has become more pleasurable, less self-conscious. I hesitate to admit that collaboration is the place where I began to trust myself as a writer, but in fact, at least part of the confidence I have comes from trusting the creation of a third participant, the "us," which, in turn, led me to recognize the many selves who compose my work. When I lived in my imagination, I held vainly to a code about creation: that it took place in a silence that was private. Animating one's privacy with another person's magic was something beyond me until Olga persuaded me that there was nothing to lose. Indeed! Art is stubborn, and says what it has to say.
JE: In your work, there is a deep engagement with the poetry and prose of Russian poets. Would you talk more about how their work has influenced your life and writing?
JM: My grandmother Goldie was Russian. My early interest in Russian literature began with Chekhov and Pasternak and Dostoyevsky. I wondered where the women writers were in the same sickly way I wondered about American women writers. The first woman I thought of as a real person and writer was Virginia Woolf. I had encountered Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti and come face to face with the awful way their lives were described to the "public," and I knew there was a lot hiding under the surface. I had a feeling as a teenager that I wasn't being told the whole story about what it was Dickinson was doing in her room, in her head. I didn't buy the whole prudish thing. The first time I read anything by Virginia Woolf, I just about passed out because I felt her experience to be psychologically akin to my own in a way that, say, Dickinson's New England was not. In this same way, I found Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes; at last there was a world in its entirety beginning to take shape. Anyway, I eventually found the great Russian women writers and fell under the spell of their passionate lyrics, Akhmatova and Tsevetaeva in particular. I've never been to Russia and have no Russian so I only have this translated energy, but the demands I hear pressed into the telescopic (or, at other times, compressed) action of the translations appeal to my sense of the compulsiveness of words their ongoing flood of emotion. This is from Tsevetaeva's near-hysterical (let's reclaim that word for I mean this appreciatively) "Poem of the End":
howls like a dog screaming
and that nightmare reached my waist
crying silently love love until
Strange leaps! marvelous consolidation. I really love her. I also respect how adamantly many of the Russian writers read, how certain they are about who they love, and why! To read Mandelstam's essay on Dante which, appropriately, he calls a "Conversation with Dante," is to be reminded of how important it is to find one's own canon.
JE: I was thinking about some of Akhmatova's lines from "Poem Without a Hero": "While along the embankment of history, / Not the calendar the existing / Twentieth Century drew near." If the historical circumstances defined a late, real turn of the century, exerting a pressure everywhere recorded in her very meters, I wondered if you felt the real twenty-first century has already begun in contemporary poetry in its image repertoires, rhythms, cadences? And if so, what are the signs of such pressure in your work?
JM: In Working Time, I got into politicizing the mundane objects in our world, delighting in how they ended up in poems you know, spandex, K-Marts...The gravity of the vertical narrative contends with the lightness of expendable objects. As this century closes, poetry has a propensity to chart this cacophony of objects, places, information. Time has clearly speeded up; we're already in the 21st century in the sense that space is time, and we can put it all on a chip the size of well, by the time I finish this interview, maybe a molecule. The present is expansive, absorbent, gobbling up the past and the future in it; the present, even with all of our techno-systems for retrieval and invention, is all we've got. So I feel in turmoil when I write. I am circumstantial. I think a lot of us feel places, things, people piling up and jamming at the end of this century, and a lyrical stirring at the other side of what? starting over. The overpowering factor of the abstraction in this case the number 2001 as opposed to 1999 designs our poetic working of particulars. Maybe when the numbers change, like an odometer on a long trip, there will be a release of congestion and exhaustion. We are feeling it already as poets because we crave otherworldliness.
JE: You have done a great deal to recoup and reposition the role of nostalgia in contemporary poetry. In others' hands, the moment of the nostalgic has felt, to me, like the place of sluggishness, of dry irony, of rhetorical entrenchment. But I feel very much that it is a moment when you trill several tones of voice at once: pathos and affection, humor and despair, always with such deep self-scrutiny. What is it about nostalgia that is lively for you? Is it where memory is capacious?
JM: I suppose what interests me in nostalgia is its bittersweetness. In Portuguese, suadade is a full sentimental moment redeemed by its urgency and pain from complete foolishness. The whole "moment" of Andrei Tarkovsky's film Nostalgia is lush and timeless. Our histories are ripe awakenings and not merely repositories. To say, "I can't remember" to oneself, to another who shared an experience, to someone who didn't and desires access to say to a place, to a thing, "I can't remember you," "I refuse you" is cowardly. "Once there was..." this enchanting phrase desires, deserves to come alive. To me, the past the plain, unedited past as best as it can be articulatedis as precious and unreliable as a dream, but equally demanding and persuasive. How can one ignore a communiqué so plastic, exquisite, and serious? What to do about it? I figure the obvious, that the past is there to learn from, that its rhythms are valuable as musical steps in language, and as signals in the real world of actions I can feel experience exponentially accrue as it goes. The more I understand my own past, my cultural inheritance, the more free I feel to live differently. I don't believe there's any need to spin again through those hours angrily. And I hate ironic language because it cleverly represses and forestalls; I hate that kind of play in a text that is self-aggrandizing, that takes its time (and the reader's) going back to reproduce events. All that is an absorption with the lesser deities pity, and guilt, and shame. I guess the past ought to move about like a shadow or dream or wind, but when it is hauled in for entertainment, it's a drag on the text, it's stolid. Even if I remember well what happened, it's pretty weird to think somebody ought to believe me. Why? What have I got to offer? In this regard, the documentary film is fascinating to consider. Maybe the writer has got to back off from the material and make the visual presentation without getting out her handkerchief? You know, when Marguerite Duras says, "I can't remember writing this book," she's talking about The War in which there's this disclaimer that she found it in an attic of a house that was hers, so that, indeed, she must have written it what is she saying there? I mean, this is a harsh book about waiting for someone to be released from a detention camp after World War II; this isn't something you forget you wrote about. Is she trying to mess with our heads? I've had a lot of ideas about it over the years. I thought she was just making things interesting, "thickening the plot." Anyway, it's a measure of intensity her memory of life vibrant and her memory of making art in that life, gone. Make of it what you will. I'm just saying that we are always only writing about the past; all art is autobiographical, and the intimacy or distance we achieve is of our own making. We don't need to think about the past as precious, dead, self-referential, enclosed. For me, a memory comes alive if I am alive remembering. Proust reminds us of that. You know these people you enter their homes or their stories, and there are relics everywhere, props the life's gone out of them. Moaning over them isn't what gets to an audience. The past has to be let go right when it most matters. Right in front of everyone.
Copyright © 1996
Electronic Poetry Review