Thomas Fink and Leila Rosner
Thomas Fink: In both Sixteen Candles (Moderato Cantabile, 2016) and Click Here to Forget (Isolate Flecks, 2016), as in some earlier work, you feature unrhymed, non-iambic pentameter, fourteen-line poems with three quatrains and a couplet—the latter corresponding to the implied structure of the Elizabethan (rather than the Petrarchan) sonnet. A “sonnet” in Italian signifies “little room.” What motivates your selection of this container, this “little room” of poetic utterance?
Geoffrey Young: After twelve years of using what I call the “faux sonnet” (not rhymed, not iambic, not limited to ten syllables a line–as you point out), it has become second nature to find a way to “contain” whatever language I’m using within the fourteen allotted lines. It’s a manageable stretch. A sprinter’s, not a distance guy’s. Sometimes one of mine is made up of one long sentence broken into lines, most times there are several. You get something going, then you get out, without belaboring the lyric vehicle. That’s the hope. The division into quatrains provides a tool to help me “see” what I’ve got, to make it clear where an edit is necessary, a surgical intervention required. And enjambment itself is one of poetry’s pleasurable tricks, a tool that can extend perception, and alter meaning. The gap between quatrains seems to invite enjambment.
Fink: Yes, I agree that the form encourages one to enjamb. Prose-poets have some interesting tools, but, unless you stretch the use of the term a great deal, they forfeit the pleasures of enjambment.
Defamiliarization can be considered an overarching term for a host of aesthetic/conceptual strategies used by many of the people that The Figures, your house, published, such as Clark Coolidge, various Language poets, and Kenneth Goldsmith. Your modes of defamiliarization are often highly imaginative. To cite only one example for now, the long-limbed “Jerry, Jerry Baby” contains various defamiliarizing gestures. It grafts an enigmatic title onto a poem that is not only a hyperactive catalog of questions, but questions that consist of dependent clauses—beginning anaphorically with “if,” the conditional—and lack the follow-up of independent clauses. The first seven lines of first two quatrains thematize the problematics of the production/reception of two-dimensional contemporary art—
If a genius in hush puppies can side-step oblivion?
If our addiction to the efficacy of digital dispersion is laughable?
If flatness is out and the yawn-inducing “Critique of painting” is dead?
If art history is preserved in salt, yet color persists?
If the only wound that painting knows is inflicted by painters
Too lazy to risk being great?
If modernism’s spatial planes begin to flip-flop, flicker, & flame out
(Sixteen Candles 23)—
and then the rest at least seems to be dealing with various other topoi, as evidenced especially by the last line: “If making lists and losing car keys have everything in common?” (23). Can you tell us a bit about your sense, as maker, of the relation/non-relation of the title to the poem, the thematic relation/non-relation of the first seven lines to the last seven, the effect of your use of these dependent clauses without main clauses, and the possible effect of a poem like this with questions (actual or rhetorical?) and no statements?
Young: The title, for people my age, might cause a reader to hear the pop song, “Sherry, Sherry Baby” echoing in ear, but it had to be changed to “Jerry” because the text is adapted from something written about art by critic Jerry Saltz. Unfortunately, I no longer have what he wrote. When I decided to do something TO his text, I worked directly on it, altering
his considerably, and never thought to keep a copy of what I started with.
Fink: On first reading, I thought of “Sherry, Sherry Baby,” then forgot to mention it here. But it’s interesting that you’ve “hidden” your starting point (pre-text) for the poem and Jerry Saltz’s identity—until now, as if to remind us that some elements of context may always be unavailable to most readers; we have to live with our incomplete background. There’s no perfect understanding of a poet’s conscious intention anyway, even if the poet tries to supply it. His/her incomplete memory retrieval system and the strong pull of the poet’s unconscious prevents a full mapping.
Young: Beginning each line with “If” was a way to keep introducing material, without having to resolve anything. Usually it’s enough in a poem to just mention something, and that something begins to exert its presence. The poem’s not an essay. Discourse is alluded to, but not enacted. Whitman’s catalogues, though often tedious, because endless, could be behind the “excavating” use of “If.” I was improvising on Jerry’s text—because I liked what he’d written–and jumped at chances to add and alter whatever came to mind. His text was a lot longer, though he provided nothing of that last line. By the last line I’m probably worrying more about senility than art.
Leila Rosner: In “Milk Bottles” you seem to be commenting that the reality set forth by scientific theory is not based on reality as we know it:
Reality is a cliché, a dirty thing
Of beauty too obvious for words.
It qualifies as noteworthy, though,
For its frequent capacity to evade
Let me ask Stephen Hawking a quick question:
What’s so bloody real about an atom? (Click Here To Forget 18)
What attitude could we infer about theoretical posturing here and in your poetry in general?
Young: I’m wary of the big concepts, “reality” taking its place in the top ten of problematic abstractions. So omnipresent is the physical world, so various its actualities, and so inseparable are we from it (despite our feeling alien half the time!), that it seems foolish to treat it glibly, to limit the real in any way by definition or claim. Jack Spicer pointed to the lemon as real, its tartness not least of all. Fine by me. I accept the plethora, just as I accept the cliché. I drink lemonade, too. Language used skillfully contributes to the real? Why not? If we acknowledge that every attempt to write a poem (make a claim for the real) is but a version, a provisional account, we’re well on our way to understanding how transformation works. Reality is a big barn filled with straw and mice. Still, the lovers meet clandestinely there in the hayloft, rendezvousing with destiny. Hawking lives in a world we can only guess at. His “atom” is not my atom. In fact, I don’t have an atom. I have a barn!
Fink: You begin “Lemon Rinds” with the ringing lines:
Say in words what you see with eyes
and you will re-experience yourself
after the fact
through your style of seeing and saying.
As self empties into things…. ” (Click Here to Forget 25)
And you end it with a goal for that emptying “self”: “To witness what is// there, to be like light/ falling on each and every thing.” The poet’s words of depiction and witness illuminate the environment for others by representing it, even as it helps the poet “re-experience” him/herself.
The self, then, is not fixed; it is constituted at each moment by the flux of otherness, alterity. But I think that “Lemon Rinds” features only one of Geoffrey Young’s attitudes toward the fluid self. I would call it the William Carlos Williams wing of the bard bird, and one might even trace it back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” in the essay “Nature.”
The other wing of the bard bird might be called “language-centered”: language playing its own game prior to and, in some senses, beyond the utilitarian correspondence of verbal sign to conceptual or material referent. The kind of poetics that generates language-centric poetry, exemplified perhaps in the same chapbook by “Painting As” and in Sixteen Candles by “Merde Alors,” would acknowledge that you can try to “say in words what you see with eyes” but that language will “naturally” resist representation as it performs as language, which has its own nature(s). Generally, poems from the second wing don’t try to represent sensory perception; they enact something else:
Is French for a kind of resigned
Frustration or disgust (I’m not shitting you
Though I could be talking shit)
‘Cause we’re all full of shit
And don’t know shit about shit
(Please forgive me my shit
As I forgive you yours)
And if someone says “This shit’s got to stop”
Agree on the spot with “No shit”. (Sixteen Candles 13)
Well, shit, do you think that there are, as I contend, two modes (and probably more) in your oeuvre? Are they amenable to a friendly synthesis, dialectical or not, or are they polar enemies? Or am I trying to impose a hardening of the categories while the bird is flying somewhere else?
Young: My father always used to say, apropos clarity in writing, as an example, “The man bit the dog, period.” Of course he was well aware he’d flipped the nouns. With that flip he’d gotten my attention AND he’d introduced something extra: irony. Wit. Something wrong could be more right than the expected version. Williams kept re-writing a poem until the way it looked and what it said were in perfect alignment. “So much depends/upon” just that attention to syllables, to sense, and to an accurate presentation of what’s out there. Then Coolidge comes along, well after the Surrealists freed language from the conventions of realism—relishing its irrational proclivities, its autonomous desires–and Clark began to explore a representation-free writing. I resist the latter, but take advantage of its permissions, when inclined. Often the music is richer for being unchained from literal sense, especially in Clark’s case. Now a programmed computer can crank out reams of lyric poetry as well as high-falutin’ gobbledegook ad nauseum. What to do? Stick to what we have: passion, choice, sensibility, and experience. And let the four winds blow. Set up in one corner of Whitman’s multitudinous warehouse, and see what can be written there? I like your phrase “friendly synthesis,” not “polar enemies.” We use whatever works at the moment, knowing that most readers can jump from description to evocation, from direct perception to irrational exuberance, if they like what it says, how it sounds, where it’s going. Among other reasons, I write to discover what interests me. I love rewriting messy first drafts! Rethinking, rehearing, reworking it. Writing IS an aid to memory, too. “Merde Alors” was just a goofy chance to include the word shit in many different phrases. Language specific, but not abstract, or opaque. More like a riff.
Rosner: In “It Can,” you seem to use anaphora to provide a warning that even though “It can turn you on” and cause pleasure, “it can” also “turn on you,” and put you in danger: “It can say come, it can mean go./ It can be the answer, it can be the question” (Click Here to Forget 7). You continue the anaphora through the entire poem for each pair of events on each line—for example, in the last quatrain of the “sonnet” before the couplet:
It can use the past, it can pursue the score.
It can run the beach, it can photograph a wave.
It can carry a cello, it can offer to pay.
It can toast the toast, it can praise the jam. (7)
There is no succinct differentiation between the two events in terms of being helpful or harmful. What was your intention in doing that?
Fink: And when you answer this question, also please talk about the function of the pronoun “it” in the poem.
Young: I probably should have stopped after the first line. Leila, it is good to see you point to the rhetorical figure employed. Years ago I took a course in Rhetoric (as if it were still the 18th Century). We read Quintillian, Erasmus’ On Copia, and other texts now forgotten, and got comfortable with the names and the functions of figures of speech. Could identify them in any poem. What I’d love to see is a video representation of the Renaissance English classroom, and to listen to one of the teachers of Philip Sidney, John Donne, or Ben Jonson. That generation of poets all knew their rhetoric, wrote exercises using it, could exploit the figures of speech consciously. None of us these days can, can we?
“It Can” started with that first good line. Then I drew from a shaky relationship many of the details/ambiguous signals that accrue in the following lines. When I no longer had good examples of that helpful/harmful divide that you noticed, I just kept adding details, knowing I was working without that “vorpal blade going snicker-snack.” For example, she wore grey. She followed the Mets. She and I had once run on a beach. Her daughter played a cello. She loved raspberry jam. Etc. I felt on good grounds with these details, even though I knew I’d lost the poem’s “edge.” That’s why I repeated the first line as the last…to try to reclaim some “edge.”
We look at a word like “it” for seven seconds and it gets very abstract! What is that it? Standing for what? Used as a dredge, however, the phrase “it can” became a generator. I think the poem would be less lively if I’d started each line with “She can.” The it in “It can” must refer to “life,” or some other force of nature, some semi-ghostly agency, but if I’d used she, that she would always remain she.
Rosner: The title of “Kafka to Evers to Chance” is a reference to the famous Chicago Cubs double-play combination of Tinker to Evers to Chance. The poem starts with the question,
If the book you are reading
Does not wake you up
With a blow to the head
Why are you reading it? (Click Here To Forget 9)
The question turns out to be rhetorical: “We need books that affect us/ Like disaster” (9). As a double-play in baseball is an act that has an eventual positive completion, what might you be advocating here? What do you think makes “a book… the axe” that makes the ‘frozen margarita inside of us” available for pleasurable consumption?
Young: The question makes me wonder how often we find those key books in our lives that really do “affect us/Like disaster.” We all know the difference between reading hungrily, hanging on every word, really revving, and the dutiful responsibility to finish a book, for whatever reason.
Some of the poem is borrowed from words Kafka wrote in a letter, thus his contribution to the double-play. The double-play remains for me one of baseball’s great moments, and not every game provides one, or two. I’d played second base in High School. Then years later I played softball till I was forty-five, always at second or shortstop, so have been in the middle of many a failed and successful double play. They happen fast, require sure-handedness, the pivot at second, and a perfect throw to first. “Twin-killings:” for the way they get a pitcher out of trouble. Unfortunately for this conversation, they resemble poems almost not at all, at least not the writing of them. What the double-play shares with the poem as read, though, is maximum efficiency. We want our reading to take us someplace; we want the writing to be exciting, exemplary, full of soul-stirring meaning, without a false note. Kafka had the words “frozen sea” in his line; I, self-conscious about bumming a line from his great work, added the “margarita” to make the last line wobble some, with contemporary irony? I thought the poem would taste better with a little salt.
Rosner: I can so relate to double plays and their efficiency. I remember vividly a Yankee double play at Fenway, , with 1-out and the bases loaded, along with the subsequent David Wells fist pump, that killed any joy I had that day as a Sox fan. I can definitely relate though to the concept of “maximum efficiency” too and how it seems people are almost denying the concept in their pursuit of meaningless things that only hold them back from knowing real fulfillment. Do you think, in this world of technology overload, that literature can still provide that “soul-stirring meaning” to make our lives more efficient and fulfilling or have we gone over the precipice?
Young: Two things are sure. The addiction to instant digital communication is universal, starts early now (two years old, maybe three), and will be known as the reason we must have driverless cars, because people are only driving about half the time they’re in their cars. The rest of the time they’re looking for a hand-held hit.
We have gone over the precipice, and there’s no going back, and there will be losses. Recently we’ve all witnessed one casualty: the truth. The job of writers though is to find the truth, to create it, to take in and transform what is our lot to know. And to have some fun with it as well. I just tore through I ONCE MET, by Kent Johnson, what he calls a “partial memoir of the poetry field,” for the tightrope he walks between memory, gossip and lie. And I want to read Sharon Mesmer’s new collection when it comes out—poems addressed to many forgotten women writers–for her ballsy, button-pushing feminist smarts. And I’ve been reading with great pleasure the poems and stories of Mitch Sisskind, a writer new to me, in his book, Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight. Readers won’t stop looking for authentic voice, content, and style. But non-readers? Can’t do much for them. Literature may have to rethink itself over the next 25 years, though, as attention spans shrink; the poem will mutate with the times, but it must not lose what literature does best, which is to tell our story, and move us.
Fink: Leila and I have concluding questions that approach similar concerns from different angles, so we will enunciate ours in succession and then you can address both pretty much at once.
I pick up a sense/scent/scene of the old Renaissance concept of dulce et utile—literature, especially poetry as “sweet and useful” (the latter as instruction in what constitutes “the good life”—in some of the poems collected in the two chapbooks under consideration here. The unusually political but whimsically titled “My Own Private I Don’t Know” refuses to “race ahead to paint us [humankind] into a corner,” and follows this with a barrage of meliorism about the collective “good life” as a response to the current nexus of crises:
Who can fit democratic principles to time-honored
We’re neither politicians nor speech makers
But as citizens we must address the global nightmare
With something like a plan. Give us workmen who can lay
A bi-partisan floor beneath our feet! Give us schools that
Teach the vanity of seeking power, the greed of security.
How can diligent souls face crises in food, water, climate,
Refugees & lethal weapons if desiccated hearts rule the roost?
(Sixteen Candles 29)
The understatement of “something like a plan” reminds us that irony inhabits this text as surely as the will to collective improvement does. In this pre-Trump poem, the idea(l) of that “bipartisan floor” is downright utopian during the tail end of the Obama era, after nearly eight years of the dominant party in the legislative branch doing everything it could to destroy any initiative by the executive branch. The final question seems a plea for “diligent souls” (voters) to remove the “desiccated hearts.” Well, they invited more of them to revel in “the vanity of… power.”
“Imperial Commands” faces “the frightening complexities of history…/ with a few commands” that offer ways for an individual to develop “the good life” but also sometimes allude to collective action:
the harvest, there’s grain enough. No hoarding.
End poverty. Say no to theft, fraud and spite.
Care for the halt, the lame, the less fortunate.
“Hold on tightly, let go lightly.” Give yourself
Away. To “Survive with dignity” means what it says,
Rambo, so give us strength to face the Pepsi Challenge.
Work by day, remain vigilant by night. Do what
Needs to be done in the most direct way possible.
And when righteousness blinds, study humility.
Curb excess, stir vats of soup, honor thy offspring.
(Click Here to Forget 33)
Within the same poems, I detect both an ironist, who is skeptical of “wisdom literature’s” high sententiousness and pietism and punctures such things with references to “Rambo” and “the Pepsi Challenge” and the paradox about holding on and letting go, and a sincere meliorist who really does believe in doing “what/ needs to be done”—such as working toward the ultimate collective goal of “end[ing] poverty” (a la the UN Millennium Development Goals)—“in the most direct way possible,” in the “study” of “humility” and the curbing of “excess.” Am I right to locate this admixture of irony and meliorism in the first place? And if so, what do you think powers the co-presence of these divergent forces in such poems as “My Own Private I Don’t Know” and “Imperial Commands”?
Rosner: In “Anoint me with Distraction” you note that people have become accustomed to “stacking Lincoln logs” into structures as great as a Ziggurat which seems to be a trope for the building of mundane and illogical social institutions:
We can read Ben Jonson’s syllables
In The Forrest, spend all we can afford on a spate
Of shiny movies. But have we become too good
At stacking Lincoln logs into twinky ziggurats, thinking
That poetry’s high-rise perception rewards the long view?
Poem as path to that perch overlooking Stevens’ dump?
If I miss your drift or you miss mine we can sift
This later for sentience, until sleep fires our nada engine. (Sixteen Candles 9)
Is this a commentary that society has become too uniform and obsessed by false idols? What do you think we need to do to break down these institutions and not live in a “shade discredited planet” where people are blinded to the truth? In “In Common”, you are a proponent of looking past existing institutions, like religion, to gain a sense of enlightenment and togetherness and to find commonalities that bring us together. You seem to note this in the “equal importance / At dawn” of the “cardinal’s whistle” and the ‘crows caw” (Sixteen Candles 31). Is the trope of the “sunlight in the window” something that represents a utopian society where this togetherness is attainable? Can poetry, and literature in general, be a vehicle to gain this togetherness?
Young: Wouldn’t it be great if the unacknowledged legislators of the world actually had some power? If benign, upbeat, egalitarian visions (and the institutions that would propitiate them) could be bodied forth in daily use? If human nature didn’t have its very dark streak, intact no matter what claims are made on behalf of progress? Alas, we are more complex than we normally admit to. Everyone needs food and money and shelter and love. I am not proud of the poems you both cite. I don’t want to preach, or remind, or chastise a drifting culture, as if I were an old testament prophet intent on correcting the wayward lives of the tribe. But sometimes I permit myself to say those things—pious, conventional things–feeling it can’t hurt for a reader to be reminded that we do have something to say about the big, actual, scary, & too often unresolvable issues. One only has to hear a conservative projection of what looks like imminent starvation for millions of humans (not to mention fauna and flora) to feel the horror, to know that failed societies exist, that things will get a lot worse before they get better. I’m sitting in a room now at 6:15 with a fan circling overhead, wondering where to go for dinner in an hour, and whether to take a bike or a car, on safe roads, with money in my pocket, and time on my hands. We’re deeply spoiled by the protein-fed richness of our country, and must not take it for granted.
It would be embarrassing to be so sincere in poems if conditions in the world weren’t so much with us. Irony’s touch alleviates, but only a little; the plight of millions remains nightmarish.
My bleeding liberal heart is all that is the case I guess! Never thought of myself as a Utopian, but you two have out-ed me! Not that I have a shred of confidence that the world is getting better. Poets must keep their sympathies lubricated, however, put their shoulders to the wheel, address the issues, and hope for the best.
We’re all creatures of habit. Vanity is a habit. The poem is a habit. Education can shape those habits, just as parents raising children do in the home. If habits change, the world changes. Have you noticed lately that people you bump into are for the most part friendly, kind, even helpful? Dogs are interested in each other, too. Spike Lee’s movie, “Do The Right Thing,” touched on aspects of this, although with incendiary social heat. How can we increase Whitman’s amativeness, and make generosity of spirit the norm? By taking a good long look at ourselves? By giving our books away? By trying.
“The Man on the Dump,” Wallace Stevens’ poem of despair about the limits of knowledge, the difference between poetic imagery and reality, and the temptation to believe, remains a marvelous poem, despite throwing doubt on everything. At times, for Stevens, it was enough “to see the moon rise in the empty sky,” and to be the one who says so. Makes me remember that one of poetry’s jobs is to redeem the quotidian vulgarity of American life, to be a man on the dump, armed with language. Resisting the increasingly dark tendencies in politics and society is every citizen’s job, as well. Vigilance, another word for poetry?