Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Brian Clements Interview: An Accumulation of Astonishments

Interview with Brian Clements re his new book "And How to End it."


RK: These days it seems impossible to just take 40 or 50 of one's best poems and slap them together into a book. Readers expect a larger structure and for poems to work together. For today's poet putting together a book this means having to work and think on a much larger scale than what's usually involved in an individual poem. I see in the description of "And how to end it" (on SPD )that you've used the Fibonacci sequence as an organizing principle. For me the relevance here is that the sequence shows, going along with what's happening in "And how to end it," how things accrue, spiraling out, larger and larger. Can you tell us a bit about why you chose this mathematical sequence and how, all in all, you expect it to enhance and/or ground the reader's experience of the book? How also did it then guide your decisions in putting the book together? And while we're at, if you don't mind, could you let us know a few recent books of poetry whose architecture organization has particularly impressed and surprised you?

BC: Thinking on a larger architectural scale hasn't been a program or a result of market pressure so much as a habit for me. I've tended to work in projects since around '94--I think it was a way to organize my thought and energy after grad school, where many things tend to be organized around what someone else wants you to think about. While it may be painfully obvious to most people, I had to learn by negative experience that it's impossible to be genuine or even interested unless one follows one's own obsessions and idiosyncrasies. Working in projects is a way to indulge those obsessions and idiosyncrasies yet feel like you're getting somewhere--not necessarily in the sense of progressing, but in the sense of moving somewhere else. So I worked on nothing but 7-line poems for a while, which resulted in Ions, then I worked on nothing but ritual poems for a while, which resulted in a yet-unpublished manuscript called Burn Whatever Will Burn, and I worked on a few other sequences, then did a bunch of short poem/plays, and somewhere along the way-during a burst of collaboration with a group of poets in Dallas, including Joe Ahearn, Ray Bianchi, and others--I realized that I had been interested in prose poems back in grad school without really knowing or caring that they were "prose poems," and that, having been discouraged from writing them, I, stupidly, abandoned that interest. When I came back to the prose poem, I wrote nothing but those for five or six years. All of the poems in And How to End It as well as the poems in the sequel book, Jargon, which will be out next year from Quale, came from that burst of prose poems.

Gian Lombardo at Quale had asked to see a manuscript, and what I sent him--not quite the 40-or-50-best-recent-poems-of-a-certain-type method, since they were bound by a few threads--included what ended up being the two books. Gian has a very good eye for paring down a book, for cutting out what is not essential. You can see it in his own poems, and you can see it in Quale's books, which have a spare sensibility but also a sense of great space opening up--this has a lot to do with his use of white space, but also with the silences between sentences, stanzas, pages. Gian and I had been talking about the book's use of cosmological terminology, particle physics, how the language of those disciplines suggests something about both the particle/wave nature and the fractal nature of language itself, and I decided that I wanted to reflect that in the book's structure. The Fibonacci sequence was a way to use the language pool of the poems to create a kind of fractal mirror, so that pieces of the book keep coming back at you as you read through it. And it continues into the sequel book.

I'm not sure I ever thought about how my use of the sequence grounds or doesn't ground a reader; primarily I was concerned with finding a way to build into the book my obsessions du jour, which is also a way of making a record for myself of what I used to think about, and with finding a way to hold the book together. But maybe those two things are the same thing-holding a book together and grounding a reader. All of which is to say that I'm not that concerned in this book with marshalling the reader into some emotion, some reaction or another. I'm just interested with puzzling out the problem of the book, which is the problem of placing our fractured, lost, being in a fractured, entropic, beautiful, exploding universe.

Some recent (loosely interpreting "recent") books whose architecture/organization have surprised/impressed/pleased me:

Brenda Hillman's Cascadia
Denise Duhamel's Mille et un sentiments and her book forthcoming from Firewheel next year, Help in 40 Languages
Catherine Imbriglio's Parts of the Mass
Dale Smith's Black Stone
Cecilia Woloch's Tsigan
Brenda Coultas's Handmade Museum
Carolyn Forché's blue hour
I've always admired the architecture of John Yau's sequences and Charles Wright's books and Ron Silliman's oeuvre.
There are a couple of manuscripts I'm reading for the Sentence book award whose architecture I admire, but I have no idea who the authors are (blind reading).

RK: The predominant force in our culture is that of quick and easy gratification. Quick and easy sensory stimulation. And when it comes to Art and Entertainment, it's more, really about superficial Entertainment. Movies, for example, indulge in video-game-like effects, cars and buildings exploding. No thinking really, just blood and burning. Your book's not easy. You take us on a trip out into space, back down into the body (where legends hold the truth is written on bone and on the lining of organs) which ends up in a bog, and into the twisted-spiral dead-fog-land of politics, history and terrorists. And all along this book demands that the reader think. In fact, the tone of the opening, "Beginner's Manual," is quite gruff. The speaker warns the reader that he's in for a strange and difficult time and that the only rule's that "the rules are updated regularly." In fact he/she goes as far as to warn the reader "if you value your quiet life, stop reading now." (this is funny because today's "quiet" uncomplicated life is the superficially hectic sound and fury world of movies, music and video games.) "And how to end it" simply isn't a book for the average Joe. And most books of contemporary poetry aren't. But lots of poets seem to think that most books of poetry are for the average Joe: if only he just tried hard enough! What I admire here, is that right up front you tell the average Joe: this isn't for you, fuck off. So the book, then, seems elitist. Written by a specialist for a niche audience of mostly-specialists (other poets). And it's not "posing." Your thoughts on this, please (direct, indirect, whatever) ?

BC: There's an interview with Jack Gilbert in the current APR, during which Gilbert spends a lot of time and effort, as he has done for years (when you and I visited with him in Dallas years ago, for example), essentially asserting that what he calls "postmodern" work is empty and worthless because it doesn't appeal to him emotionally. He also blames our high quotient of what he considers to be bad poetry on, among other things, what you've called this culture of quick gratification. The interview is full of contradictions and inflated ego masquerading as selflessness that I won't go into here, but what is frustrating about Gilbert is what is frustrating about many "mainstream" poets and readers who are terrified of poetry outside the mainstream (and "mainstream" for me means the poem of emotional expression or transparent communication), in a way that they tend not to be terrified of experimentation in other arts like painting, music, sculpture, architecture, film. They can't see poetry as anything but an emotional expression or an expression of emotion, a solicitation of emotion--not to mention the fact that they can't conceive of the idea of a difficult, experimental poem engaging someone on an emotional level. Why? It's befuddling. Gilbert at least says, "I'm just not interested in it," rather than saying "It's not real poetry," but there's still the implication that the poem that is not grounded in personal expression has no value. Now, why would one assume that everyone would or should be interested in the same things that interest Jack Gilbert or Joseph Epstein or Joan Houlihan, or that everyone shares a core of emotional obsessions? The "universal" experience of humans, or even a common experience of Americans, is a bunch of bunk beyond primal urges. I love most of Gilbert's work, but if everyone tried to write like he does, good God. His contention seems to be that only an emotionally striking poem can change one's life. In fact, that's proven to be untrue. Everything that you read changes your brain architecture. Reading a few "post-avant" poets, and certainly an extended pattern of reading experimental work, will quite literally change you. So the change itself isn't the real issue-having one's interests engaged is the issue.

So that long preamble just to get to the fact that my motivation in And How to End It doesn't come from a desire to solicit emotion or to express emotion or to communicate with the readers of Billy Collins or the viewers of Die Hard movies (though I enjoy Die Hard movies and actually have an explosion in the book--it's a Big Bang!). It wasn't easy to write the book, why should it be easy to read it? I'm not trying to spoon feed anyone. I'm interested in engaging the kind of reader that I am--someone who is interested in being attentive to waves of motion through the book, who is interested in language that doesn't presume a relationship to the reader, who is interested in what's going on in the words themselves rather than simply the meanings the words are carrying. Most readers aren't that; they aren't my readers. Okay, that's settled, so let's go from there. I like to think that the few readers who are interested in this kind of book are enjoying the trip you describe. Is that elitist? Oh, well. I'm not going to write a different kind of book just to avoid being perceived as elitist. If some readers enjoy the book, then I'm not an elitist among them, I'm a peer. Some people, people in my own extended family, would call me an elitist just for writing any poem. [And what would they say when they found out I'm also an Atheist and a Socialist?!? So much for my Presidential campaign.] I don't write poetry in order to be part of a club. I write to find out what I can find out. I publish because I think there might be a few people out there who are also interested in having this conversation.

RK: "I write to find out what I can find out. " Your book, indeed, takes on the form of a quest. But in a way a kind of anti-quest because there is no huge payoff at the end if you succeed. You are trying, as you say, to spiral as well as you can down into the bog. The book, again, begins gruffly, speaking of difficulties and impossibilities. Cautioning the reader. There is no fun, it says. Pleasure, it would seem, impossible. Towards the end of the book, though, it does seem as though you are tempted to indulge in a payoff, in coming to a beautiful, glowing sort of acceptance. "A purple bloom of death," or "a tinge over the cotton fields, violet," or "a vast magic" of "sweet disorder" (before the sun sets) but you immediately contradict these beautiful moments that are kind of like Edward Hopper paintings in which "words begin to shimmer" with ugly real moments like "the summer sun looks like a corpse." Also, the "vast magic" you are experiencing is
just "electrons trapped in a gaze." Can you talk about how a deep sort of yearning and need makes its way into the book in spite of all the severity of the speaker's gaze and intelligence and, in fact, almost claims it? And, any comments on the Quest, in general, or the "Christian hero" you invoke, would be appreciated also.

BC: Jesus, what a complex question. I guess I would dive in at the point of the inception of the finding out, which is desire, and I would point in "Beginner's Manual" to the sentence that immediately follows the question "So where is the fun?": "For some, fun is an internal state." I don't think the poem or the book implies that there is no fun in the world or in the book; desire--the not knowing--is the fun, but it's also the anti-fun. This goes back to the point I was making about selecting one's reader; the kind of reader I'm speaking to (or questing for, if you want to go that far, though I probably wouldn't) finds pleasure in the journey itself and understands that there probably is no ultimate payoff, that any epiphanic moment or neat little gift at the end is probably plated in fool's gold. To coin a cliché, the value of the journey is the journey.

The Christian hero, of course, had a quest--did he complete it? Is he a tragic hero? He certainly found a huge audience. He comes back in Jargon in a poem about Chet Baker, whose music, whose very style of playing, is all about desire. I think questions like "What can I know that I don't know?" "What good will it do me to know?" "How will I know other than by language and thought?" are equivalent for me to the Christian desire for salvation and are probably at the root of these poems. The first poem I wrote among these pieces was "Disappointed Psalm," which, in another version, ended up being the root poem of my book of that title, and "Laboratory Psalm" was the second--in those two short little poems you have the start of everything else in the book: desire, language, physical world, history.

It strikes me that this is all probably very boring for anyone reading this interview--maybe I should introduce a car crash.

I find it interesting that difficulties and impossibilities are what stand out for you in the poems/book. There's certainly a political pessimism that runs through the book (re: both geopolitics and po-biz) alongside a kind of zen nihilism if you can call it that, but my hope is that all of that is countered in the book by wonder at the physical world, by fine attention to detail in places, and by an accumulation of astonishments.

RK: For me what gives "And how to end it" structural integrity (and by this I mean mass and shape) is that it is a universe that is predictable and unpredictable. The beginning, again, talks about how the rules keep changing. But your obsessions and idiosyncrasies serve as constants, forces that determining the spiraling. Things can accrue (seemingly out of control) and things can be surprising and impossible to properly explain (like electrons) but seen from afar (as though in a theatre seat) things HAVE to take on your particular brand of spiraling because the entire field is determined and governed by your particular constants of politics, terrorists, stars, religion, body, bog. The universe is indeed vast, is indeed billions and billions and billions of worlds, huge and tiny, overlapping, a jungle of vines, etc. But it has order. It can and will only go certain places, certain ways. Spiraling. Can you talk about how you are drawn towards order
and at the same time accept disorder and what this means to your work? I'm guessing this has been an obsession of yours-- to deal, in varying degrees of success, with it. Your first book's titled "Essays against Ruin." Your thoughts, please?

BC: Entropy is fascinating, isn't it? It's the trend of the entire universe, yet we have these enduring collections of experience called "selves" and collections of history called "culture" that just go on and on and that seem when we are children to be eternal. Do children have desire? Maybe that's the true (unreal) state of innocence--the state in which there is no need for driving desire because everything seems eternal. When we begin to see that things fall apart, that the center cannot hold, in comes desire.

One of my favorite stories to follow in cosmology is our developing sense of the universe's structure, which really launched with the COBE program's mapping of the background radiation and which has developed quite a bit since then. We gradually come to see that what seems like a random splattering of matter throughout the universe turns out to have structure, evolution, and reasons for being that are related to the early history of the universe, microseconds into its coming into being. [And what was before that--that's what I want to know, which, I'm afraid, may prove to be ultimately a theological question.] This was one of the ideas that I was toying with in the use of the Fibonacci sequence to build that fractal mirror structure that runs through the book.

Your comment about one's particular constants reminds me that in that little group of poets from Dallas I may have mentioned earlier, there is a woman named Meghan Ehrlich, who, regrettably, doesn't write much any more, but she and I used to do a lot of cutups and corpses and other little collaborative things together. She once said to me, "It's funny, no matter where you get the language and how much you cut it up, it always comes out sounding like you."

Dadaists and Anarchists, by the way, were/are agents of entropy. Terrorists are the opposite; they want to destroy in order to replace the current order with a different order, which is destined for the same vat.

RK: In my first two interviews on this blog (with Blake Butler and Johannes Goransson) I've asked for their thoughts on surrealism. Asked them to talk about Silliman's labeling of Simic as "soft surrealism." Goransson seems to advocate a fatter surrealism, a surrealism that comes out of the body's real-ness-- it leaks, squirms, rots and surges. And Goransson's also a fan, i think, of an explosive and excessive soft of Surreal. Butler seems to think there's too much labeling, etc, soft or hard, etc. That we should just get on with reading and writing. Making. I wouldn't call "And How to End it" surreal because I think the book thinks out loud so much, questioning in what feels like a philosophical mode. But pieces of your book can be described as surreal. There are certainly surreal leaps and juxtapositions of image and action. Care to talk a bit about how surreal thinking, writing and strategies play into your work? What surreal writers have influenced
you? (And, if you could, please jump in on the hard-soft-fat Silliman and Goransson discussion.) A messy question, I know, but I'm determined to get the "surreal" into these interviews, damnit!

BC: I haven't read Silliman's comments about Simic in a long time [there are so many blogs, and so little time to read them--I follow your Stupid Drawings blog, of course, for obvious reasons], but I remember Silliman denigrating what he perceived as a brand of domesticated surrealism. Simic and Tate have clearly used surrealist models of tone, absurdity, and humor to their own advantage, but I'm not sure they ever considered themselves Surrealists--I don't recall them ever calling themselves Surrealists. So in that sense, Silliman's little label, "soft surrealists," may be useful in describing some aspects of their work, but doesn't really capture what their work is about. When you get down to the bone, Simic is a lyric poet; would you really expect Silliman to say much nice about him?

Anyway, there haven't been many real surrealists in the US--surrealism was co-opted early and often. True surrealists are usually called anarchists or nihilists--whether political or poetic--around these parts. A poet today could not be a Surrealist by simply doing what Breton and Tzara were doing almost a hundred years, because the Surrealist act or work requires surprise in order to generate "the marvelous." That's been one of the valid criticisms of Surrealism, that it amounts to an endless search for the novel. Not that I personally have a problem with that. This is why later Surrealist movements had to call themselves something other than Surrealists. Kasey Mohammed and his fellow Flarfists might be about as Surrealist as we get these days.

I admire Surrealist and quasi-Surrealist and proto-Surrealist and post-Surrealist work, including Mohammed's, for its ability to change my brain in dramatic ways. Not so interested in the edge where Surrealism falls off into psychoanalysis.

I think you're right, there's a Surrealist influence in many of the leaps and juxtapositions of And How to End It. I used the phrase "an accumulation of astonishments" earlier, I see. I hope some of them produce that spark that Breton talks about--an electron shooting out of orbit--wait, is that Dragon Smoke I see?

RK: You admire (and probably seek out) different sorts of surreal (and other strange) work "for its ability to change (your) brain in dramatic ways." I'm guessing here that you mean, mostly, a fleeting sort of "pleasure"-- the object of the dark-edged desire, beyond children, that you described earlier. Yeats said something or other about how changing his syntax changed his intelligence-- a more permanent sort of brian change than reading surrealism which might be compared to the pleasure that comes from trying new and strange combinations of food (unless that's all you did all day long, or a lot anyways). During (and because of) those 5 years you only wrote prose poems how did your intelligence (brain( change)? (This reminds me of you telling me how you asked Simic--at a Q and A after one of his readings--about the different mindsets he'd employ to write prose and line-broken poems which he seemed to be writing, more or less, concurrently. I think his response was something like this: yes, the approaches are different. Again, yr thoughts, please.)

BC: No, I didn't really mean a fleeting sort of pleasure--though that's part of the equation. The truly novel, the "marvelous," the real innovation is always pleasurable, even though its content may not be. I mean that reading new work, and especially strange work, quite literally changes the way one thinks, the way one's brain works; the neurons chart new connections that have the potential to become not only available but engrained in all future thought. Changing the syntax changes the attack of a particular thought, but following a new path of experience (and reading is experience) changes the possible ways of changing the syntax, changes the person through whom the thought is filtering.

The move from free/verse to the prose poem was a move away from thinking in arbitrary units (the line) and toward a more robust way of moving through language (the sentence), a concentration on syntax itself and the movement, the music of syntax, rather than the relationships among lines (in the best cases: a set of witty but otherwise unnecessary line breaks in worst cases). Aside from the benefit of exploration of new territory, a kind of linguistic or literary vacation that any artist can get in an abrupt switch in direction (I think that has something to do with Picasso's un-at-home-ness, for example, or Ashberry's--they essentially work in projects; one set of questions exhausted (if not completely answered) you move on to the next set of questions), I think the prose poem allowed me to take advantage of some other ways of thinking, more essayistic thought patterns, that I had been trained, or had trained myself, to restrict. So, writing nothing but prose poems for about five years taught me something about structure and form that probably everyone else already knew: choices about structure and form are choices about relationship to language as a whole and therefore choices about ways of thinking, and that the nature of the thought is at least partially determined by the shape or the form or the structure. I guess I knew that already in the abstract but needed to internalize what it really meant. In other words, a prose poem will out a very different kind of thinking than a different structural choice, and what the prose poem "outs" tended for that time to result in more discovery for me than what was happening in free verse.

I remember that Simic quote. It was at a reading that he and Yehuda Amichai did together in New York years ago, not long after Simic's book of prose poems, The World Doesn't End, won the Pulitzer. What interests me about it is two things: first, that Simic thinks the prose poems are of a different nature than his free verse poems, yet I think that many readers would not necessarily say that there is a striking difference between what is going on in the prose poems and what was going on in his free verse at the time. Obviously, they move by the sentence rather than by the line, which results in a different rhythm than his free verse. And perhaps the prose poems had a bit more of a dark edge to them. Most strikingly, the prose poems are certainly shorter and thus require a different kind of attention, which may be their best justification--the book requires a different way of looking, of paying attention, than just about any book out there. But, secondly, I'm interested in the ways that book says "No." In Simic's response to my question, he was really saying "No, they are not the same," which is what the book says: "No, this is not the same as anything else;" "No, this life is not any other life;" "No, what happened during the war should not have happened;" "No, despite all this, it will not end." "No, the world won't get easier." All of which is a kind of contrary position to Simic's other book of prose poems, Dimestore Alchemy, which is all about yes and affirmation, acknowledgment of possibility, the pleasure of objects and the act of collecting objects, both actual objects and objects in the writing: Writing as a way of reconstituting the world, which is fun, and fun in a way that The World Does Not End might not have been for Simic-it's probably pleasurable for the reader in a way that it was not/is not for Simic himself.

RK: I'm a big fan of Sentence. It's introduced to me lots of great work. Its special Features are wonderful and, all in all, it's clearly the best and most comprehensive venue for prose poetry, ideas and reviews. Can you give us a bit of a heads-up of what's in the works from Sentence and it's parent-press, Firewheel, which you also run? And any other thoughts on the journal and on being an editor of prose poetry? Any advice to potential submitters? Other places to send prose poetry, etc?

BC: Thanks. The sixth issue has been HELL to get out, so I apologize to any and all readers, contributors, and subscribers. It's due back from the printer next week, though, and will go out soon.

Working on Sentence has been sheer pleasure, mostly just from being in contact with a lot of excellent poets and reviewers who also happen to be nice people and easy to work with. The features have been a great pleasure, and I've enjoyed turning part of the journal over to the feature editors; I think having that substantial other voice(s) in each issue has probably been invigorating for the journal. The sixth issue has a feature on The Prose Poem in Italy, #7 will have a Native American Prose Poems feature, and #8 will have an as of yet unlabeled feature that will involve bringing the work of slam and performance poets to the page. The contributions of the Contributing Editors (Maxine Chernoff, Russell Edson, Michel Delville, Gian Lombardo, and especially Peter Johnson) obviously have a great deal to do with the journal's success.

Another pleasure of editing the journal has been making connections with the editors of other venues devoted to prose poetry and or flash fiction. I think the little of community of editors that includes Sentence as well as Mark Tursi, Peter Conners (of Double Room), Morgan Lucas Schuldt (of CUE), and Jen and Adam Pieroni (of Quick Fiction) have all been supportive of each other. Quarter After Eight is a good venue, and New American Writing, as is Ray Gonzalez's reconstituted LUNA. So many places publish prose poems now that it's probably harder to find a journal that is averse to them than to find one that prints them.

The press will be expanding in the coming years, doing more books and more chapbooks. Our chapbook series is devoted to publishing work that would otherwise have trouble finding an outlet, either because of format or typography or content or whatever reason; we interpret it loosely. And a new anthology will be out soon that is intended for classroom use, called An Introduction to the Prose Poem. One of the challenges for any independent journal/press is finding good volunteer work. All work on the journal and press is donated time and effort; it wouldn't be alive if we had to pay for that work. I've been blessed with excellent students volunteering as Editorial Assistants, but it's a struggle finding layout/design people who are willing to volunteer their time and work; this is largely the reason why #6 is so delayed. So if anyone out there is good with InDesign.

Questions for the Road:

RK:Tea or Coffee?

BC: Yes

RK: Palm trees or Thorn Trees?

BC: No

RK: Cum, shit, spit or blood?

BC: All present.

1 comment:

Linda Ashton said...

I met Brian Clements years and years ago at the Mac on McKinney Avenue. I think it was 1997 but I'm not sure.

I was sufficiently intrigued by our conversation to seek out his first chapbook. Now all I have to do is find it...