Sean Singer’s Honey & Smoke and Terese Svoboda’s Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship were both published by Eyewear Publishing, an independent publisher of poetry in London edited by Todd Swift. Founded in 2012, they’ve published a Poet Laureate of Canada, a TS Eliot winner, and a leading expert on John Ashbery, among others. Few American poets are published (so far) on Eyewear—Alice Anderson and Don Share have books there—but Eyewear makes aesthetically beautiful books of high quality.
Terese Svoboda’s introduction: Honey & Smoke is Sean Singer’s capacious, smart and provocative second book. From “Sea,” the intensely imagist poem that introduces us to the level of syntactical bravura he will rise to, to the prosey quote-filled (or is that character?) dazzle of the poem “Newark,” the book extends poetry’s business, by driving the line into logophilic heaven, then riffing and doubling back. I never thought I’d find Aristophanes’ “ouzelo-throstleo-cushato-culvero” shoe-horned successfully into a poem! The jazz obsessions of his first book, Discography are found most effectively in the dark notes of “Ken Burns” whose PBS jazz series is not even mentioned. “Dark patagial marks on underwings, present on all ages and races,/conjured shadows beyond the last section of the long film.”
Sean Singer’s introduction: Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship is an endlessly inventive political and steampunk journey into a new landscape. Her subjects are violence, history, race, terrorism, colonialism, and all the sinews in between. Curious in its forms, and interests, her poems absorb, even as they challenge. Surprise is the eternal principle of literature, and these poems take the Victorian-industrial to their maximum edges. Rarely do you get to witness the motions of a mind in language in this way and get to play around in that mind awhile. Svoboda is beyond category:
A single story is like history-in-the-making,
no notes from another floor explains
the one you’re on—once through the door,
in and out of rooms, terraces, courtyards:
the 19th century so bright with mechanincs,
the 20th electric with crackle,
the 21st locofoco with sun—
where Yours turns into Ours.
All the trees cut.
We are not yet birds.
Singer: My first question is whether you did research for some of these poems? It seems like some of them (E.g. “Red Summer 1919”) have elements of nonfiction. Added to which, what is your take on genre distinctions. You write poetry, fiction, memoir, biography, etc. Do you feel these as distinct, or do they blur at some point? Are such distinctions meaningful for you?
Svoboda: “Red Summer 1919” came out of research done for Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. I was so shocked to read about the stoning of a black youth in a whites-only water in Chicago (water!) that I was drawn much deeper into what was going on at the time. It turned out that many of the subjects Ridge wrote about throughout her life happened between 1917-1919, a period when the country was in upheaval with regard to race and terrorists, (then known as agitators) and the result was hundreds of lynchings, terrible violence, and the mass deportation of immigrants. The situation rang a contemporary bell but that bell wasn’t going to fit neatly in a footnote, and deserved better. Albeit, choosing poetry for the material immediately diminished the poem’s audience. Fictionalized history, however, does not have the ring of authority that voice-driven poetry does. Stories are usually told in the distancing third person, pace Defoe’s The Plague Years. With regard to “Red Summer 1919,” I could hardly claim memoir (“I was googling this interesting fact and…”). I make very clear that I’m white and shamed and appalled, and that there is no escaping responsibility over time, a stance I took in “Secret Executions of GIs/Black by GIs/White in Occupied Japan” in my Selected and New that was written after I finished a memoir about the same subject. “Noble Savage” in Harriman is the second poem I’ve published about Jean/Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world. Why doesn’t everyone know about her and the intersection of islands/paradise/women/violence?
As for the genres blurring, poetry is the most elastic and forgiving of the genres. A good poet has access to every tool in the language, from composing sestinas to inserting emails. Vikram Seth’s novel The Golden Gate always has “verse form” appended to the title. It’s not poetry in “novel form.” Plays come in “verse form.” I’m awaiting the memoir in verse form.
But you—you’re one to talk. You have a passel of poems that steal from other genres, most notably the screenplay and the academic paper in “The Conversation: a tape, a plastic wall, a bug, a saxophone.” You’ve also published a piece called “My Kafka” as nonfiction which may or may not have to do with your poem “Franz Kafka – Serious About Your Safety?” In your review of another poet, you wrote that the difference between poetry and prose is the line break, yet you use stanza breaks in your poems instead of line breaks and sometimes sort of chapter headings, in the case of “The Conversation.”
Or am I getting too technical?
Singer: I prefer literature that either creates a genre or destroys one. My Kafka piece is partly fiction, partly nonfiction and partly poetry. It’s a nonfiction non-poem. Likewise, “The Conversation” manipulates all those genres to read or ‘worry’ the subject material about surveillance and sound, etc.
Your new poems think through political violence, racial violence and terrorism. What do you see is their relationship? And do you think there’s a responsibility for writers to address these questions?
Svoboda: The relationship between political violence, racial violence and terrorism is violence end stop. But writers have no responsibilities, they have only inspiration. Lola Ridge defended her propensity to write about labor, lynchings, executions by telling an English critic that a poet should write “anything that burns” her. The burning part is the most important. We live in violent times.
You do not resist puns. “Freud Knows” and “a hoarse squall, never from a horse” in the amazingly various poem “Whale.” You do not resist rhyme as well, for example, the very first elegant poem “Sea” ends in a half-rhymed couplet: “Flying on our backs, unbuttoned sheets for dark’s dusty pear./My emerald…remember the bees made honey in the lion’s ear.” Would you care to comment?
Singer: The title is actually “Franz Kafka: Serious about your safety” which was inspired by those signs in the subway that say “Serious about your safely.” I like little sonic jokes occasionally in poems like a pun or an off-rhyme. I think poems can be serious but shouldn’t take themselves too too seriously.
Many of your poems in this book have dynamic line breaks and line lengths that have a lot of space and a kind of tiered effect. Can you please describe your thinking about lines? What demands do content or otherwise put on those forms versus other forms?
Svoboda: Knitting patterns. Seriously, I like to use the whole page. Lines break on both sides. Sometimes content—violence, especially—explodes, though sometimes violence is tense, terse and run-on, as in “Orlando is Us.” “Grim Sleeper,” my imitation of Auden’s “O What is That Sound,” uses the ballad to hint, stanza by neat stanza, of unfolding violence. I like your analysis in “Black Swan”: “American coverage [of violence] found whites as victims, while Russian coverage depicted the riots as a military conspiracy to quash repression.” That sentence points up the difference between your nonfiction poems and your lyrics: the shorter poems, often in couplets, are masterful in their handling of sound and the brilliant assonance of the not-quite-right image, while the long dense prosey poems are articulate and surprising, the whole box of chocolates—but hard to quote. Since I’ve been picking on the first poem, I’ll use it to illustrate:
Colored pulp unlocking in sheaves, a black eyelid
Violet fluid, along an axle of wind, vodka petals.
Moist metallic, windswept curtain branching into roads
Orange coda with meteor coils, the hands of prism tinfoil.
But we have not finished yet; we can go deeper.
Green gloss, overelaborate, a bandaged lung glimmering.
Embrasure’s double bass, folded like charred paper.
Living in a upturned jar, translucent plasma, pink tissue.
Flying on our backs, unbuttoned sheets for dark’s dusty pear.
My emerald…remember the bees made honey in the lion’s ear.
One of the longer poems in your book, “Black Swan,” uses the bird as “a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight,” as the wiki puts it. I only knew “black swan” as a metaphor for the gay community because of its sexual tendencies! (There’s a print of a black swan at the top of James Merrill’s staircase.) The city of Newark performs as a sort of verb in the poem and the conversation around the city and its riots is commented on by the likes of Kazuo Ohno, Pasolini, Helen Stummer, Jeanne Lee, George Oppen, Walter Benjamin, and a wise guy with a vaudeville joke. In your nonfiction piece about Lynda Hull, you say she describes the streets of Newark “with a jazz-inflected lens of horrified fascination.” You’ve taken it farther, you are in Sun Ra country.
Singer: I’m unaware of the sexual connotations of the term ‘black swan’ you refer to. But I appreciate your reading of it. Newark is almost mythological and to me is a metaphor for the rest of America in all its contradictions and optimism. I think Hull is terribly underrated. Her work has really endured and has elements of lyric and narrative that are blended in a strange way.
Your work also has many steams of knowledge coming together or blowing apart. What do you think about making poems accessible or having a doorway for readers? Do you think about a reader?
TS: Nebraska is my Newark. I prefer its mythological being to its reality. Space and sky. Race and cherry pie. With regard to readers, I want them to extract what meaning or pleasure they can but I’m mostly out to “entertain” or “enlighten” myself. I’m thinking, Did I really think that? Is that true? “Outside” readers could be lured by the sound, or an intriguing arrangement of words on a page, or a curious voice, or a subject they have some experience with, like love, and preferably all of these at once, although one or two can lure them into deeper waters. Your Gjon Mili on page 92 plunged me into Google depths. Of course some readers know more than others.
Does your comment from a few years ago shape your own relationship to accessibility – “I know I hold the minority view, but I don’t value community; I left Facebook and I find most poetry readings too long, too proscribed, and too dull. I don’t need a person to read to me, and I dislike theatrics. I do not believe in poetry’s cult of personality. It is harmful to reading well. At best, a poetry reading is a social opportunity. I am interested in writing; everything else is just ornamental.”
Singer: I hope readers somewhere find my work, that something will hold her attention. But when writing I wonder if it’s a bad idea to imagine this reader. I think my statement is correct, but maybe I was too harsh. I do think, particularly because of Facebook, that a lot of ‘poetry’ has nothing to do with writing. It can be difficult to keep going. Maybe I’m just misanthropic or have anxiety about these extra-poetic situations.
How do you manage or calibrate the shifting tone in your poems from humor to tragic? Does it have something to do with including different voices?
Svoboda: Misanthropic used to be practically part of the definition of the holed-up writer.
I am trained to avoid real emotion as a good Midwesterner, where deadpan humor leavens everything from heavy Bohemian pastry to suicide.
But look at you: “Let’s just saw ourselves in half/and call it a night.” is how you begin “Final Performance,” a title which is followed by the dates of a dead novelist and a dead musician.
By “different voices” do you mean Eliot’s, the dramatic? Once again, I refer to another of your lines for clarification: “Malice, please take a seat, next to the butter dish’s umbilical wallpaper.” from your poem, “The Seventies.”
I am interested in voices, dragging them out of the lyric and beyond the “third person,” and moving the poem toward drama. I’ve been working on the poem as play, along the lines of Mac Wellman, trying out the flexibility of the page as stage – but those experiments are in When The Next Big War Blows Down The Valley, not Harriman.
Or do you mean the sotto voce of the mind, trying to get through, as in “What does Newark, then New Ark, talk about? What is the talk of Newark? Newark renews” from your “Black Swan.”
The last poem in your book is the six-couplet “The Seventies” that grazes the decade with allusions to “jellied gas” and “aftereffects of olive teal.” You use the same title for a section in “The Conversation” which references Coppola’s film as being one of the best of the decade. Why the focus on those ten years? Often a writer is drawn to time periods–Lola Ridge, for example, wrote most of her best poetry about incidents that occurred between 1917-1919.
Singer: In your poems you often have funny moments like “when the egg gets it” or “tsunami-ed” or rhyming “Dear Abby” with “ghastly” and so forth….
But these are often in the service of something profound or troubling. I find these turns fascinating.
I did mean dramatic voices.
I think the 70s figure into my book in different places since I think we’re reckoning with a lot of the energies and moments from that era now. I was born in 1974 so maybe I’m trying to reconcile my own moment in space with what was happening then.
Coppola’s Conversation was nominated for Best Picture that year but actually lost to the Godfather Part 2, which was also his film. Unbelievable.
I try to make poems maybe that have no first person speaker…almost like the language itself is driving the poem forward.
Since you’re a polymath in your life and poetry do you find poetry itself to be your source of inspiration, other arts, or what? What would you say is your recurring or obsessive subject?
Svoboda: First, I’d like to comment on your statement: “I try to make poems maybe that have no first person speaker…almost like the language itself is driving the poem forward.” Is this at all related to Eliot’s: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality?” Or does it spring from some other source?
Re: polymath. That always sounds to me as if I’m Shiva doing addition. Poetry comes first, the sounds of words and their connotations drive me in every literary experience, although less so in Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet because I felt so obliged to resurrect her I had to think about audience for once and transparent narrative, with words at the service of character and plot, such as biography offers.
Singer: I am trying I suppose to let the language be the speaker in a way…I’m trying to avoid myself as the writer and speaker. So it may be connected to Eliot’s idea.
Given the terrible events of last night’s election, though, I can’t help feeling that poetry and art have utterly failed us. Poetry was meant to make the world more empathetic. I really feel at a loss to continue at all.
Svoboda: It is appalling. Thinking about Adorno’s line on how you can’t write poetry after the Holocaust and here it comes.