(New York: Lunar Chandelier P, 2016)
Vincent Katz and Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: Southness exhibits various poetic modes. In contrast with syntax experiments and disjunction—which we’ll cover later—appears the use of a plain style, a simplicity of diction, as in the three-quatrain “Botanical,” a poem about gathering and separation in a park that memorably rhymes “grass” and “ass” (18). “Memory” involves one’s control over one’s own time:
Soon, she’ll go.
He’ll go, they’ll.
Then life will be
just the way you
want it: still,
to schedule and
Regardless of the plainness, the word “go” has an ominous ambiguity. When “they” “go,” it may be either the permanent departure of death or the end of a visit. Without visitors, “life” may proceed according to one’s own terms, but it seems almost cruel, even if understandable, to affirm the benefits of others’ deaths. And yet, the poem’s turn, occurring in the last sentence stretched over the major part of two quatrains, reverses this focus on the positive aspects of other people’s departure (in either sense):
But it will
be duller then,
all the laughter
memory, pale. (22)
Suddenly, the poem’s title crops up in the last line, and we see that “memory” is a “duller” trace of the experience that had previously seemed less than thoroughly fulfilling. In the first part of the poem, “confusion” might be considered negative, but now it is posited as exciting. Perhaps the plain style is an excellent vehicle for the thematic focus on the quotidian, but what is your sense of how you intended to employ this style in “Botanical,” “Memory,” and several other poems in the book?
Katz: I like the phrase “a plain style.” I like to vary styles, or techniques, as you know, and probably none is easier than any of the others. Or, to put it another way, one is involved in the same struggles and beset by the same temptations, all the time. The struggles are for economy, clarity, and music, the temptations the sound of one’s own voice or mind. But definitely, there is such a thing as a plain style. It makes me think of Cicero’s (and others’) taxonomies of rhetorical styles, in particular, the drier, more clipped, Attic style, versus the more florid, elaborate, Asiatic style. Thought of in these terms, the poems you cite might be termed Attic. The poems in Southness cover a period of time. I’ve lived with them for a while, as I’ve harbored the title Southness for some time. The poems, and the book’s title, represent, I believe, internal experiences, that, hopefully, readers can relate to their own internal journeys. That is, these are more private than public poems. When I was writing poems like “Memory” and “Botanical,” as well as “Change,” in Southness, I was trying to come out of a phase in which I allowed myself to write poems in which I minimized conscious control, such as “Rapid Departures,” which was published in 2005 in a book by the same title. Those poems, which maybe had their origin in poems like those in my book Pearl, published in 1998 but written in 1990-91, I allowed to be registers of crazily off-kilter senses of perspective, consciousness, time of day, global hemisphere even. Worn out from allowing such imbalance into my verse’s mind, I attempted to find a way to tamp it down. Simultaneously (in the late 1990s), I wanted to get away from the dailiness of a Frank O’Hara type poem into a poem that might be more controlled and, as I thought of it then, abstract. I had long been a reader of Robert Creeley’s poems, and I noticed how form played a major role in his work, structuring, but also limiting, obscuring or semi-obscuring thoughts at times, which created a less literal, more universal effect. I began trying that, and the resulting poems include the ones you’ve cited. There are also some later poems in Southness, in which that desire to control the situation, let’s call it, motivates the form. I’m thinking of “The Moon,” “The Pond,” “Price.” It’s interesting to look at Southness in terms of form. There are poems with two-line stanzas, three-line stanzas, four-line stanzas. Then there’s line-length to consider, and use of punctuation or lack thereof. “Memory,” as you note, is quite restricted. The short lines, and the punctuation, cause the phrases to stop frequently. To my mind, this creates an unusual sound that fits the thought pattern of going back and forth between present and past, as you have astutely analyzed it. Another phrase of yours that intrigues me is “control over one’s own time.” I used to think of poetry as a defense against the all-too-swift passage of time, a way of fixing, or slowing, it, even while simultaneously acknowledging the impossibility. Now, I think of it slightly differently. Poetry can’t stop time. It can register moments, however, in ways that seem to stop it, momentarily.
Fink: I did detect a dialogue with Creeley’s formal features and diction in poems like “Memory” and “Price.”
Some poems that possess or are close to the plain style—“Fecundity” is one example—might also be viewed as “wisdom literature.” It’s a term to make Conceptual poets squirm and New York School folks reach for their uncanniest ironies. However, in “Summer,” there’s nothing preachy about the wisdom offered; it works. Michael Mazur, the poem’s elegiac subject, whom you apparently met just a few times but whose lush painting you encountered often, is presented as an example of “wisdom” in living and in communicating with others:
I don’t know if he sailed or played ball
But I might imagine he could have or did
He had that agility of conversation
His eyes were full of light
I could tell when we spoke
There was interest in his voice
The challenge of an idea
We could find together (48)
In Plato’s “transcripts” of Socrates’ dialogues, the gadfly’s “agility of conversation,” however brilliant, may be deemed at odds with his commitment to the challenge of the mutual discovery of an idea, because his barrage of questions often bludgeoned the other party into crying uncle. We get the sense that Mazur ironically came closer to stated Socratic ideals about dialogue by separating the “interest in his voice” from a fixed conception of “Truth” and thus taking collaboration or teamwork in “playing ball” too seriously to engage in psychological manipulation. You connect this form of wisdom in his communication with what you find in his art:
In some way, I was always aware
Of his presence, through friends
Or more directly, the work
Which I’d come upon in museums
Or galleries, it always had
That surprise of discovery
It was something undefined
A beating, as of waves, toward
An undisturbed shore of friendship (48)
Plato’s Socrates invokes disturbance and the movement toward “something defined” as significant components of friendship, which he explicitly values. But you are lauding the “undefined” and friendship located on “an undisturbed shore” in Michael Mazur’s character and painting. In the poetry where you are not “trying to control the situation” but even where you are, I believe that you are committed to the “surprise of discovery,” which is not the same as a surprising arrival at a definition—at least not a final one.
How do you regard your aims for this poem as an elegy, perhaps as “wisdom literature,” and how do you think about its exploration of dialogue and friendship?
Katz: Wow! That is a tough question. Let’s see… I’ve found that I have an affinity for elegies. I’ve written elegies for people I knew well — Ted Berrigan, Elio Schneeman — and those with whom I had only brief personal contact — James Merrill. What I’ve found is that those elegies were very spontaneous. They were written in the moment of the person’s death, my reactions to it compelling me to write. I think the ability to form a response has something to do with a classical approach, not only from Greek and Roman poetry, which is full of elegiac pieces, but also someone like Sir Walter Raleigh. I really got to like Raleigh’s poetry at a certain point, how he could confine, or control, intense emotion by the regularity of his form. And all that poetry has in common a strong rhetorical basis. The trick for us, or for any poet, for Raleigh too, is not to rely on a given rhetorical scheme. Each poet really has to invent her own rhetoric, or at least do some serious tweaking to existing models.
So, with the poem “Summer,” I am glad that you picked up on the double meaning in “played ball.” “Sailed” also has more than one meaning – the metaphoric meanings of the terms in the poem add up, in fact, to an even clearer picture of the man than the literal meanings. This is something I am working with all the time, so much so that it does not need to be in the forefront of my awareness while writing. I just need to maintain a level of sensitivity, and I can tune in and find phrases that fit and have deeper levels. This can be an intense process while writing an elegy, as one wants to represent the emotions and insights a person’s death may have given one, while also reining those elements in to lines of poetry.
I think you are right – Socrates’ approach was confrontational, while Mazur, in conversation, was collaborative. But this is not a prose portrait of Mazur. Rather, it is almost like a religious poem. It is meant as a sending off – for me, possibly for friends and family of his, and then for other readers. The interesting thing about elegies is that they have an immediate function, but then they can function later too, even for readers who never knew the poet or the person being elegized.
One key to this poem for me is the title. I am always interested in how titles function in relation to poems and find it intriguing when that is not entirely obvious – or is, to use a word you cite from the poem, “undefined.” Undefined in the sense not of lacking logic but rather without limits, without ultimate definition. Death is often thought of as definitive, but the poem in its own way claims something different, and that is expressed in the paradoxical last line, “An undisturbed shore of friendship”. “Undisturbed” makes me think of something eternal, never touched by human feet or hands, but the full phrase evokes a place where friendship flourishes. And where friendship exists, where there is more than one person involved — whether it is a friend, or a reader — a relationship continues. This all takes place under the rubric of the title “Summer” – the season of fecundity, sailing, ball games, being outside.
Fink: Yes, the adjective “undefined” seems to signify that logic may go as far as it can but not all the way to fixed definition. And your elegy does show that Mazur’s death cannot wholly “disturb” the summery “shore of friendship.”
Now, as promised, I’ll turn to one of the poems that strenuously challenges interpretation. Featuring end-stopped couplets of two words each, various words that could be read as nouns or verbs, and abundant alliteration and assonance, “Twist” keeps twisting away from a single context:
reckon alit. (30)
“Attire” and “style” are thematically connected, as are “rest” and “retire,” as well as “penury”/”increment”/”retire spent.” One who lives in “penury” can’t necessarily enjoy the kind of fashion that s/he wants to wear, but this does not help me “assimilate” the drift of the poem as a whole. It does not tell me what “reason” to utilize to “alight” on an overall thematic “reckoning.” Oh, we could platitudinize about the reader as co-producer of the text, but let’s not: is it your intention for the reader of this poem—and, to provide another example, the reader of the third and fourth quatrains of “March”—to reach an impasse and stay in or live in that impasse, or do you, as writer and reader, have in mind possible avenues to fuller interpretation that did not occur to me?
Katz: To answer your last question first, I do not have in mind possible avenues to fuller interpretation when I write a poem like “Twist.” It is an attentive reader like yourself who actually explains a poem like this to me. When you link “attire” and “style” and perhaps contrast them with “penury” and “increment” I feel a flash of recognition. I say, oh yes, that is the poem. That is what it does, it conjures those thoughts, those concepts, instead of explicating them. Fashion is something that is very important to me. I love to observe how people present themselves, especially in a metropolis like New York or London. But I am also somewhat disgusted by and afraid of the apparatus that goes with the fashion industry. It is similar with art. I love art and artists. I always like seeing it. But I am less and less enamored of the art world. So, that’s the fashion part. Of course, attire can be used metaphorically. The beach, attired in stones and seaweed. It means equip originally. A poem like this isolates words, which I like to do anyway, in my head, in order to delve deeper into each word’s origins and ramifications. Being able to do it in a poem requires additional apparatuses. In this poem, as you note, there are two words per line and two lines per stanza. Each word could be thought of as independent. But I have grouped them, putting them into relationships, perhaps most particularly, or peculiarly, by using periods at the ends of stanzas. These are certainly not syntactical sentences, so why the periods? Perhaps they are being used in a musical sense. 1-2-3-4 stop. 1-2-3-4 stop. But then, strangely, they do start to make sense as sentences: “style research / assist penury.” “rest increment / retire spent.” They certainly have a sound that reminds me of other poetry, perhaps even poetry of another century. It makes me think how much the sound of the words is prevalent in all poetry. When Shakespeare has Horatio say, “But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill” we cannot but think of that as sounds before, or simultaneously with, thinking of it as sense. Finally, though, there is a style to “Twist,” a look, that, to me, makes it definitively of this time. It has to do with a clipped, registered, quality to the language and its presentation. It feels contemporary.
The poem “March” is somewhat different. It starts intelligibly enough: “March grabs you by the hair / something coming from sky”. The final line of that stanza shifts things syntactically. Instead of “poetry comes billowing up” we have “poetry come billowing up”. That is understandable as poetry is come billowing up, but also has an echo of an imperative: “Poetry, come billowing up!” And “come” always has a sexual connotation as well! In the first reading, we are being put, subtly, into a different linguistic setting, again perhaps in another era. Stanzas two and three are quite limpid to me! Maybe you have a specific question? Same applies to stanza five. Stanza four however! When I sent this poem to a journal, the editors replied they’d be happy to publish it if I removed the fourth stanza. I asked Jim Dine what he thought, and he said, “No! the fourth stanza is what makes it work!” So I told them I had to keep it in. The way I see it, in the fourth stanza, the mind goes loose from its moorings. Too much looking, too much thinking, too much anything can do that. And I want to represent that in the poem, rather that stating it. So I go into as pure a sonic adventure as I can muster, something I have experimented with for some time now. As I said earlier, all poetry is sound poetry, but some poetry privileges sound over meaning, and I have, at times, been wont to go there. I just like to do it, and I treat it as a kind of athletic event. It’s like, how are my chops here? Because, in a way, it’s easier to attempt this, you don’t need to deal with meaning. I like to work with meaning, because I think it’s more challenging. Fewer people can pull it off. But sometimes I just like to get down, to jam. And when I do that, we’re just comparing chops. And who knows? There may be some readers who prefer stanza four to the rest of “March.”
Fink: “Buchanan Unbowed” gets down or jams in a different way than the poems you have just discussed so cogently. Because of all the political allusions and evaluations, I don’t know that the mind can get “loose from its moorings.” As you’ve noted, various poems in “Southness” are not recent, and “Buchanan Unbowed” refers to the campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1996. I surmise that the poem was written soon after it. The title comprises the first two words of the first string of clauses, which talks about the decline in political commentator and former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan’s momentum, probably soon after his wins in the Louisiana and New Hampshire primaries:
midway between two primaries
his bounce had begun to shrink
gag order imposed
liberalizing balkanized economies
sleeping alone, perpetuating fiefs
diluting virulence built on
spoils and patronage
Milan Panic’s desires
exaggerate thin volume (4)
In 1996, the ultra-conservative Christian fundamentalist Buchanan ironically struck a single chord with those on the left by challenging multinational corporate dominance and, especially, the outsourcing of jobs overseas. But I’m baffled about what “gag order” was imposed, since the Republican machine that supported Senator Bob Dole couldn’t really stop Buchanan from mouthing off. And I’m not sure what Buchanan had to say about the post-Soviet liberalization of “balkanized economies,” the perpetuation of “fiefs,” and the dilution of “virulence” involving “spoils and patronage” either in the U.S. or the Balkan states, so I’m unsure about the linkage of allusions in this strophe. Your textual trope at the end of the strophe seems to criticize Milan Panic, the pharmaceutical bigwig who was briefly Prime Minister of Yugoslavia (despite being a U.S. citizen) and in some way helped to oust the butcher President Milosevic, but I’m not clear about that. How does the allusion to him connect with the Buchanan campaign? Is Panic—and here I’m tempted to link his name with economic unrest in Italy’s capital of fashion!—an example of multinational corporate greed, its opposite, or both?
Katz: You’ve zeroed in on a type of poem I like to write when I’m in a certain mood, usually a mood of frustration with the current political situation, at home, abroad, or most likely both. We are all consumers of media, but we can critique what we consume. I see this type of poem as being in the lineage of found poems initiated by such practitioners as Max Jacob and Blaise Cendrars, who were among the first to appropriate language from the media and claim it as their own. They felt alienated from the attitudes and assumptions they encountered in daily papers. Jacob’s response was to satirize it and to explode it into Surrealist absurdity. Cendrars tended to be more inclusive, and he also chose details that fit more harmoniously with his world view. In my case, I am reacting to feelings of impotence I think many contemporary consumers of media encounter, but I try to apply a subtly subversive re-configuring of that language that is by and large upholding the status quo, though I have a great deal of respect for journalists who attempt to make sense of events whose decisions and concomitant deals are largely made behind closed doors. I have a poem in my book Understanding Objects (Hard Press, 2000) called “Business Day,” which names some of these journalists as a sign of respect. And in Judge, a long poem published in a collaborative edition with art by Wayne Gonzales (Charta/Libellum, 2007), I devoted the entire composition to the nomination process for John Roberts to the Supreme Court. I began that poem just after Bush nominated him, on July 19, 2005, and I finished with his confirmation as Chief Justice on September 29 of the same year. Part of the reason for that was that I knew what the outcome would be in advance, and I wanted to feel I could do something actively against it. I chose to react to the way the whole farce was portrayed in The New York Times. Every word from the poem “Judge” comes from an article in the Times. I would read, usually late at night, and compose almost in real time, grabbing at phrases, but not the phrases that told the narrative the paper wanted to put forth. Instead, I realized the real information in these articles was carried in words I called “color words” – emotionally embedded adverbs, adjectives, idioms, and colloquial turns of phrase.
“Buchanan Unbowed,” as you note, was earlier, from 1996-97, and I see it as a definite precursor to “Judge.” It came from a similar sense of frustration at being a citizen in a system whose power structures affect me and millions of others but which I have little effect on myself. The main power we actually wield is the ability to vote. But there are other things we can do, as citizens and artists. I once gave a reading in San Francisco, in Norma Cole’s home, of just three poems – an early piece called “Surprisingly Glossed,” from my book Cabal of Zealots (Hanuman Books, 1988), more in the Jacob absurdist vein, taking language from fashion advertising (something I have continued to pursue), “Buchanan Unbowed,” and “Judge.” So “Buchanan Unbowed” plays an important role for me personally in a lineage of a certain type of potentially activist appropriated work.
Everything you have identified is accurate, and in fact I am very appreciative of your reading as it is just such a perceptive ability to tease out the realities behind my words that I hope for in a poem like this one. I go in the opposite direction of literal narrative. I search for a poetics that can use found political verbiage as its building blocks. So there are some predetermined elements to the sound and rhythm that I can alter and inflect, sometimes by changing a tense or turning a finite form into a gerund, and particularly by omission and re-orientation. Thus, words have new contexts, and what is nearby takes on new significance simply by its location in a line or strophe.
Why do I mix Buchanan and Panic? Part of it might indeed have to do with the latter’s name. But the process, as I’ve outlined, is reading the paper and reacting to what stands out to me. Buchanan, for obvious reasons. His was the most extreme voice in that electoral scenario, and I was fascinated by his appeal to many people. Panic was probably more because I was devastated by what was happening in the former Yugoslavia, and an article came up that shed light on that region.
In terms of the phraseology, I was able to locate two articles just now that supplied some of the language for this poem, one on Buchanan, the other on Balkan economies. It is interesting to me to go back and to see which few phrases I would choose from an article, and also how I would reconfigure the order of phrases to turn them into poetry.
In addition, in “Buchanan Unbowed,” the entire second strophe is my own, unappropriated, language and thought. So, I’ve inserted, in the midst of a carefully constructed reading of The New York Times, my own reflections on the situation, in particular by focusing on the man who was Buchanan’s main rival, the one who ultimately defeated him and gained the Republican nomination, Bob Dole.
Fink: Moving from the realm of politics/media to visual art, I note that there are at least three poems in Southness that have some connection with ekphrasis: “Quadro Tonto,” “Bacon” (Francis, not the breakfast treat), and “Unbewusste Orte.” “Quadro Tonto” is a 1982 painting by Enzo Cucchi. The “pigheaded” character of Cucchi’s painting seems to be speaking. The first strophe posits the speaker’s desire for self-improvement and indicates why this may be necessary, despite the approbation of some unidentified group:
I’d like to be a better person
I know that in their eyes I’m fine
That everything has been left in order
but in my own I fail at intervals
I’m not enough there for people
I evanesce or my own desire’s paramount (5)
To “evanesce” is perhaps to “fail” other people by not fulfilling their expectations—that is, not presenting them a self with which to negotiate. “Not enough there” is not the usual cliché, but a statement of absence or absenting, though Cucchi’s figure is surely a rather present representation: a huge head lying (with eyes that I read to be closed) on top of a long horizontal house. The second, concluding strophe, which repeats the key word “eyes,” proposes an interesting solution to the problem, and it involves the speaker using his eyes:
but I also know it is within my power
to be a better person
I need only look into their eyes
instead of longingly down streetlights
of the limb-strewn boulevard (5)
I have only seen the painting in reproduction on Google Image, but I don’t see any “streetlights” or “boulevard,” much less a “limb-strewn” one. So are you moving away from or toward a narrative tailored to what one can see in the painting? Is the ekphrastic act staying with or getting away from the work or was this poem never meant to be ekphrastic in the first place?
Katz: I think you may be on to something in your final question. That is, I rarely start out by trying to write an ekphrastic poem. On the contrary, visual art is so much a part of my daily circuit, and has been, literally, since birth, that I usually think of works of art in situ, that is, as part of the environment, an important part sometimes, other times less so. In the case of “Quadro Tonto,” poem and artwork, the title means something like “dizzy painting,” which is why the head is lying down, I take it, in Cucchi’s image. So I take that image, and the image in the title, and transpose them to my own life. My head is a little dizzy. Largely because of the issues you’ve noted in the poem, but these issues are occurring in a specific place at a specific time. The place is Berlin, where I saw the piece at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, a huge former railway station, converted into a gleaming modern museum for contemporary art. After seeing Cucchi’s piece, I was still in Berlin, but the idea of it got me thinking. For me, it’s there all along in the poem, but place is only given direct expression in the last two lines. The poem does have a lot to do with looking, though, doesn’t it? There’s the temptation to look away versus the commitment to look into someone’s eyes. The effort it takes to get lost versus the effort to try to understand someone or something. I like taking a direct tack poetically by putting that into ethical terms, being “a better person.” I feel that poetry and criticism, too, for that matter, can play crucial roles in articulating what being a good person can mean. It’s complicated, never one simple thing, but, having posed the question, I like to posit an answer as well, without closing down the poem. Regarding writing and visual art (the title and the painting), Enzo Cucchi himself is fascinating, as he is a brilliant writer, as well as artist, and he has a devotion to the word that I find inspiring.
In addition to the poems you mention, there are at least two others in the book that gain impetus from works of art — “Vanitas,” based on many Vanitas-themed art works by Francesco Clemente, and “Opacities,” written while observing the improvisatory print-making process of Robert Zandvliet.
Fink: It could be said that Francis Bacon’s art often explores what it looks like to be a bad person or a good bad person. Even though, as you say, you usually don’t set out to write an ekphrastic poem, perhaps I should assume that the title “Francis Bacon” came before you composed the poem, because the first three sub-titles of the ten one-lined sections, “Animal,” “Zone,” and “Apprehension,” are actual titles of his, as is “Epic” (9), and “Crucifixion” (4) is the major word in a longer title, and “Archive” (6) is the title of a retrospective given to him. Here are the first four sections, all of which provide distinct images that seem to involve foreboding or anxiety:
An ache of blue in the clouds
The tension of bodies
A little man down the road
A drink or two at the pub
Could you please comment on the work of ekphrasis and/or the salient departure from ekphrasis that this collocation of terse fragments is enacting?
Katz: I wrote this poem at the Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain museum in London. Each of the 10 section headings was the heading for a room in the exhibition, so the poem is in a way a translation of the exhibition. I’ve always been a Bacon fan, I love his energy, the way he puts his perversions right out there, his distortions, amid these seemingly drab, featureless, settings that feel very much like Britain at a certain time and place. We can glean from his work what the temper of the times was like and even the smell of the wardrobes and airless rooms. So I was wandering through this exhibition in a kind of bliss. It was pure happiness to me to be in this sacred, protected, space, where all this incredible painting was presented for our delectation. I think that museums are still our sacred precincts, I hope we can keep them that way.
I looked up and saw the room headings, and I thought that was brilliant! It was not a chronological framework, it was not even thematic. And I thought, bingo! I am always on the lookout for a way to intersect with work I like via poetry. Here, I just thought, take the headings and write a line for each. So that’s what I did, and the responses are like one-liners, or repartee, a form I felt related to him, as he was extremely social. I tried to respond as quickly and directly as I could to each prompt. Of course, as it goes along, a certain mini-narrative builds with a climax and a denouement. The poem starts with an attempt to look at a painting and write something from it. So the “blue in the clouds” is probably something I saw, but the “ache” is something I felt. It’s already a transformation, it has to be. I want this to be a conversation, not a kind of idolatry. And I don’t want it predicated on biography. Anything that’s coming in is coming from the work, or the setting, or the moment. Don’t forget, that, again, it’s an urban situation we’re talking about — paintings in a museum in a city with people circulating. “The tension of bodies” is thus both in the paintings and in the rooms the paintings are installed in. I always feel that people are displaying themselves at exhibitions. That line happens to come under the heading “Zone,” which of course is the title of the great Apollinaire poem that effects a brilliant collage of sights and sounds of Paris. It makes sense to me to have London and Paris in close proximity in this poem. Sections 3 and 4 tap into a kind of British jargon that I hear in my head from time to time. In Section 4, I like the juxtaposition of the heading, “Crucifixion,” with its connotations of extreme pain but also exaltation, and the line “a drink or two at the pub,” which is on a mundane plane but somehow can allude to similar extremes. Bacon was famous for his drinking and excess, so I wanted to reference that. I was thinking of the famous Colony Room, a private drinking club he frequented with Lucian Freud and others.
Fink: In the tension between the singularity of each one-liner (or bit of repartee) and the progress of the poem, what you call “mini-narrative” emerges from juxtaposition that is both based on multiple contingencies and framed by procedure.
In 2015, Nightboat published your poetry collection Swimming Home, and now, Lunar Chandelier is bringing out Southness. Given the diversity of modes in the new book, what impelled you to bring these poems into relation to form a single entity, distinct from what you assembled in last year’s collection? I am seeking a sense of what, for you, the maker, constitutes the bookness of the book.
Katz: That is a wonderful question. I have always been very interested in what makes up a book and have seldom “written a book of poems,” as I hear many poets do. I think I may have done that for my next book. But what I usually do is look around and see what I’ve got that could make a book. Swimming Home began its life as a book when its publisher heard me read the long poem, “Barge.” In a way, “Barge” became the lynchpin for that book. Eventually, the book itself branched out into three sections, and the majority of poems in the book were of relatively recent vintage. Southness came into existence quite differently. It is a title and body of work I’ve harbored for many years, a decade at least I’d say. Most of the poems were written between 1997 and 2001. Aside from the final poem, which was written in 2000, the last seven poems in the book were written during 2007-2009. So there is this burst at the end that brings it closer to the present. But the feeling of the book I thought of under the rubric “abstraction.” That’s the best word I could think of to define what I was going for in many of these works. But, as you note, I go off in many different directions. I feel that’s in my nature, and I try to respect that. I also don’t like books, or exhibitions, in which each work looks and feels very similar to the ones next to it. I prefer to be surprised, even if the surprise is odd or even unpleasant. Then there’s the classical idea of sententiae, actually being able to pull it together and say something direct, hopefully in a way that doesn’t sound like other things you’ve read. I am careful about sequencing, and in both books paid a lot of attention not only to how poems follow one another but also how they look and interact across spreads. The title is important to me, and I waited a long time, until I found the right publisher, and the perfect cover image to snap it all together as one unit.