(New York: Nightboat, 2015)
Thomas Fink: What is your rationale for Swimming Home’s division into three sections?
Vincent Katz: Well, it was interesting selecting the poems for this book. It was a long process of selection, arrangement and integration. I wanted to have the long poems together, and at first we thought of having them first. But that kind of depleted the reader’s attention. There was nothing left after that! Then we thought maybe move them to the end; a lot of books end with a long poem, or with longer poems. But again, it felt too heavily weighted. So finally, we realized if we put them in the middle then it balanced the book, and attention could swing one way or another. I originally had the book in two sections, but it felt lopsided. Three feels just right. The final section contains the most recent poems, so in a sense, it was the easiest to sequence. The first section is earlier poems. Some of them go back to 2000, 2001, 2002, and then continue through 2010. Within each of the three sections, the poems had to be sequenced in terms of style and subject for maximum dramatic impact. In the second section, for example, it seemed better to start with the poem “Swimming Home,” rather than “Barge,” which predates it, and then end the section with an earlier poem, “Hadrian,” as a kind of coda. I am very conscious of the effect of sequencing and try to treat the book as a musical piece. “Swimming Home” is the title poem, and it seemed most dramatically effective to have it begin the second, central, section. It puts focus on it, but also the reader is prepared for it, having already read the first section. And then, in the final section of the book, I am into a different kind of writing, one I wanted to highlight by giving it its own section. It also contains the most recent poetry in the book. I decided to end the book with a long poem, sort of the ultimate statement of that poetic at this point.
Fink: Among the earlier poems in the first section, “Square” has especially intriguing formal qualities. The quatrains all have four-word lines, indicating a square, but instead of 16, there are 17 quatrains, breaking the squareness. Further, nearly all of the poems 272 words can be read as nouns, though some can be read as different parts of speech simultaneously. A few words—i.e. “nice” (28) and “naked” (29)—can only be read as adjectives; “together” (29) is generally an adverb but in slang parlance can function as an adjective. In subjecting yourself to varied constraints and in breaking them occasionally, what were you setting out to accomplish in “Square”?
Katz: “Square” arose out of a larger practice of mine, which involves writing poetry in public places. I’ve done it extensively in New York, but in other places as well. I’ve devised different strategies to handle the problem, part of which is how to write about the city in a way that is different from ways others have in the past. There have of course been great masters of the poetry of public space. Let it suffice to cite Hart Crane, Edwin Denby, who I think is remarkable, and Frank O’Hara, who invented a poetics of being in the city where poem and person are both in the present tense. Part of it has to do with things happening very quickly. The scene is constantly shifting. There are too many things changing all the time for one person to register them all, let alone try to incorporate them into a poem. My city poems have ranged from those that try to combine visual and sound fragments, in a collage-like way, a more traditional approach, to something like “Square.” With “Square,” I would sit in Madison Square Park and watch and listen and wait. Then I would try to encapsulate salient features of what I’d seen and heard over a period of time (hard to say how long, but pretty slow, maybe one or two minutes) into just one word. Then I’d go on to the next word. I gave myself the pattern of four-word lines and four-line stanzas so that the words would have a platform to rest on. I found it useful to ground this kind of writing, providing the words an architecture on the page and also as you might read them. What happens is that, although each word is theoretically syntactically unconnected to the words around it, still the mind makes connections by putting them together: “Bare fat dare cloud” seems to make sense, or make a kind of sense. Hopefully, it is making a sense parallel or in relation to the way syntax usually functions. I wanted to get out of time in a way. “Sun out day change” seems even more sensical, but I did not write it that way.
Fink: “Square,” as I should have guessed, signifies public (urban) square more than a geometric concept and its implications. Yes, the mind makes connections between the nouns and is not stymied to the extent that it is with recent poets who have made disjunction more of their aim.
Let’s talk for a minute about a few features of a reasonably representative quatrain; this quatrain not only indicates what you identify as “things happening very quickly” and “the scene… constantly shifting,” but also suggests other causes of productive defamiliarization involving the play of language and syntax:
Barefoot pigeon garbage rifle
Talk babble human unknown
Cry cover drink sunny
Stalk undie squirrel pest (29)
To speak of a “pigeon” as “barefoot” is very interesting, because it reminds us that even urban birds don’t need shoes to avoid, and the fact that the words “barefoot pigeon” are next to “garbage rifle” seems to indicate that the pigeon is the garbage-diver, but on the other hand, there could be someone rifling through garbage next to the pigeon, and gee, imagine the weirdness of a garbage can holding an actual rifle. That is, “rifle” is taken as a noun and not a verb.
As for the second line, when “talk” is classified as “babble,” perhaps the truly “human” element is elusive, hence “unknown.” And what is it to “stalk” someone’s underwear publicly? I suppose it’s a metonymy for stalking the person so that the underwear can be removed and sexual activity can talk place, or else it fetishizes underwear. Then again, “undie” can also mean “not to die”; might one be a “pest” of a “squirrel” who “stalks” immortality?
So when you encounter a reading like mine, which makes the ambiguity of perception—or even a competition among possible perceptions—as a fundamental “event” of the poem, how do you as the author of “Square” square such an interpretation with your intentions? And how do you as a reader who is also the author entertain or reject such possibilities?
Katz: You have hit on one of my aims in the use of words, which is their polydirectionality. I am fascinated by the subtexts of words, and for that reason — as English is the language I compose in — I have endeavored to explore to the best of my ability the various roots of the English language. I have studied Greek and Latin, and I continue to try to improve my knowledge of those two fundamental bodies of knowledge. I have spent time learning and speaking Portuguese, Italian, French and Spanish. I have studied German, which of course is essential to English — English began as a form of German — but have found it hard going. The German morphology and grammar present no problem; they are derived directly from Greek and Latin. But I have not yet been able to internalize a sense of how German works. I would probably need to spend more time in Germany for that to happen. I have looked into Old English, that is, I have a textbook and have tried to make sense of it, but Old English is even more distant that modern German. I really need to take a course in it, and I would like to do that asap! I also listened to a series of lectures on the history of the English language by Professor Seth Lerer of Stanford. All that is a long way of saying, yes, I hope the way I use words encourages the mind, as you say, to make connections between the various meanings of a word such as “square.” I am continually conscious of these effects, and I tend to pause while writing, as I gather the connotations and rhythms and sounds, before choosing the next word.
I very much appreciate your reading of the stanza you cited (“Barefoot pigeon garbage rifle”…). I would hope that readers would be open to the multiplicity of possibilities of reading this text. I am attempting something similar in all my poetry; but in a poem like “Square” this aspect of the poesis is foregrounded. In particular, I am glad that you are sensitive to the verb/noun identities of various words. Once one starts reading in this way, the possibilities expand inside one’s head; e.g. nouns that are not normally verbs begin to read as verbs. There is a permeability of language that I find erotic, and I am always on the lookout for this, in my reading as well as my writing. The erotic is always there subliminally, and sometimes it surfaces into the poem’s conscious level of expression. I am glad that “stalk undie” came about in the poem. It has a direct, abrupt, quality of urban convergence that I am on the lookout for in a poem, but also the poem encouraged you to read “undie” as a verb, which gives “stalk undie” a much colder reading. And then “stalk” can be a noun as well as a verb. Two more readings of the phrase?
What is interesting to me is that, as I composed each word separately, attempting to limit my conscious awareness of the words before it, I tend to read the lines like that. I.e. “Barefoot.” “Pigeon.” “Garbage.” “Rifle.” It has even presented a question as to how to read this poem aloud. For me, “barefoot” was probably a person walking barefoot, “pigeon” was a pigeon, “garbage” was garbage, either on the ground or in a can, and of “rifle” I can’t be sure at this point, it might have been the verb or the noun (maybe an image on a t-shirt). But my reading is only one, and my intention, by putting the words together with no punctuation, is that readers will connect to various connotations in various words as their own conscious and unconscious minds lead them to.
Finally, another thing I think about, that a reading like yours highlights, by slowing down the attention and focusing it on one stanza, is what one might call the prosody. I like that “talk” and “stalk” are rhymes at the beginnings, not the ends, of lines 2 and 4, and I like the effect of the assonance, rather than direct rhyme in the words “human” “unknown” and “sunny” at the ends of lines 2 and 3. And I like how the word “unknown” functions here. That is, the words are not all about strictly observable phenomena; they blend into perceptual mechanics, while shying away from the specificity of a narrating “voice.” I am going for certain effects while composing, but I am also suspending my conscious control, allowing my intuitive senses of sound, rhythm, and erotics to come into play, so that sometimes, reading the result later, I too find surprises.
Fink: “The specificity of a narrating ‘voice’” is a very interesting issue in this book’s title-prose-poem. For the first three pages, there is description of experience without the use of pronouns like “I,” “you,” “he,” or “she,” or “they” except for a single, general “your”; perhaps it’s all from the perspective of a single speaker, but we can’t be sure. Then the fourth page presents us with a “character” named Oslo, who appears in most (arguably all) of the remaining pages. Oslo does not narrate his own experience, nor is he quoted by the “third-person narrator” who puts the character’s interior monologues and his dialogues in other words while presenting stories about swimming and bicycling that are connected to larger issues like assessment of “physical attribute” in relation to “character,” “moral compass,” and social or economic “power” (45). How do perceive the significance of this doubling that I’m trying to characterize? How do you find that the double narrative effect intersects with or influences the thematic unfolding of “Swimming Home”?
Katz: The specificity or non-specificity of a narrating voice is something that has interested me for quite some time. I first became aware of the possibilities while reading the early poems John Ashbery, especially those included in his collections Some Trees, The Double Dream of Spring, and Rivers and Mountains. I realized that the lack of a single narrating perspective was incredibly freeing and exhilarating. Later, when I came to translate the poems of the first century BC Roman poet Sextus Propertius, I found that he shifts, within a single poem, from addressing his girlfriend as “you” to describing her as “she.” Those shifts are used primarily to indicate moments of heightened emotional intensity. In my poem “Swimming Home,” I began by attempting to catalog impressions received while swimming in a pool, or various pools, some of them lit from above by natural light, lending the scenes a cinematic quality. Often in my poems, I try to give a sense of vivid impressions, while diminishing the reliance on myself as a specific narrator. This applies as well to poems that make use of the first person singular pronoun. In “Swimming Home,” as the poem developed over many months (I would usually write one or two phrases at a time), eventually I wanted to include some larger concerns. One of them was inspired by my reading of Imre Kertesz’s autobiographical novel, Fateless, in which the young protagonist is sent to and survives various concentration camps. So that is how the character Oslo came into being, and I began inventing scenarios for him. As well, my reading of the historian Polybius’s writings enter into the poem. Finally, I do want to invest the poem with my own experience, so that is in there too. However, at this point, it is so mixed in with multiple viewpoints, that it is only one of several.
Fink: A sense of Kertesz’s account of concentration camps can be detected in such sentences as: “The slosh, slosh echoed in Oslo’s ears. Slosh, slosh. Do you blame the wife of the torturer, the killer? Slosh. Rain fell on his head. At first, there was an instinctual effort to protect one’s head, however ineffectually, by putting a hand over it, palm up” (48). It seems to be an example of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. What relation do you perceive between this scenario and others that do not directly allude to memories of violence? I’m thinking especially of the one that begins with “bicycling up the hill” and features Oslo having a momentary encounter with a walking woman with whom he imagines he has “a special understanding” yet later he thinks that it is “better to leave it as it was, in the past” (50).
Katz: I was trying to channel accounts of people’s experiences that I have read, to put myself in someone else’s position, but then also to blend it together with my own experience. I think that is true of every writer of prose. The poem “Swimming Home” makes use of prose as its medium, and that enabled me to go for a different approach to the subject matter. Whereas usually, in writing a poem, I try to keep myself very much tied to the present moment, to witness and recount what I am sensing, with a prose format, I felt like I could go to a different area and try to tell someone’s story. The relation between one scene and another is not explicitly specified. In that way, I hope to make the relationship of the elements variable.
Fink: “Barge” (55-77) is a long, formally and thematically diverse poem in which, suddenly, after ten sections that concentrate mainly on the daily life experiences and contexts of the production of poetry, turns in sections XI, XII, XIII, and XVII, to stopping “the Israeli aggression” and the problem of “America’s long arm” (69), referred to in various New York Times articles in the “Notes” section as Israel’s 2006 invasion of Beirut. How would you help readers account for this powerfully jarring juxtaposition and the strong tone of the speaker’s political rhetoric?
Katz: That is a good question. I would say that, in general, my modus operandi in writing poetry is to try to invent various verbal techniques to approach the general milieu in which I find myself. This milieu may be composed of the light of a certain time of day, the weather, personal events and connections regarding friends and family, the outdoor environment, whether in New York City, the country, or a trip somewhere, and, too, the political and social climate, both locally, nationally, and internationally. I am always trying to contextualize information for myself, and one of the methods I am drawn to is to think in terms of geopolitics and economic relations. However, in a poem, I try to avoid narrative. Instead of directly including whatever political narrative I may be encountering or constructing for myself, I prefer to take politics as part of my ongoing environment. I take action in my life, but my main concern in poetry is to recognize and to cite occurrences, and to try to achieve some clarity around political problems via poetry. I would say that the poem “Barge” begins, at least by section II, as an assemblage of jarring, disjointed, discourse, in which, in part, I am attempting, as I often seem to, to tap into the sexual energies of the city, the rampant circulation and exposure of bodies and minds and desires. After the first two sections, the tempo shifts, and the sensibility moves inward to confront mortality, morality, abstraction, the city. The feeling of the poetry, though, is somehow in the words and the ways they relate to one another, not in the specifics of the subject matter, which move into and out of focus. There is also the formal element, as the poems move from texts that are spread out across the page in the first two sections to blocks of text to stanzaic forms. I like to work out quite elaborate and extensive formal stanzas, as in section IV, which is in four six-line stanzas with long lines that have the feel of hexameters. This is followed by two poems in four four-line stanzas of moderate line length, and then, in section VII, a poem in two systems of four two-line stanzas. This section can be seen as a subtle precursor to the sections you bring up that deal with the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. Section VII is set in the area of Berlin near the Wannsee. During World War II, the Nazis held the Wannsee Conference there to determine the path and format for the Final Solution for the Jews. The lines “You know only ice and the birds in trees / And the house that plans for you across the lake” refer to this, as do “When you feel your balls roiling you know / It is time to get up from your chair // And pick up a pencil or simply go for a walk / Knowing the walk may take you in that direction”. In fact, section VII in its entirety is a reflection on what it means to exist in the shadow, quite literally, of that history. It also deals with the struggle between inside and outside, which is a constant in my work. I would argue that section IX, which highlights and pays homage to “A beautiful homeless drag queen”, is also political, proposing, on our home court, an awareness of division, humility, and the humanity necessary to combat intolerance and prejudice, though none of that is stated explicitly. Section X introduces the inclusion of accounts from the Israeli bombing of Beirut that was occurring at that time. I chose to include these phrases as the events were impacting me daily, and I wanted to make some response in my poetry. First, I used eyewitness accounts — “The oddly familiar sounds and feelings were / also nauseating, depressing, disheartening // Then the viewers heard the shattering / sounds and felt the sickening concussion” — combined with daily rituals and observations of where I was living. Succeeding sections of “Barge” mix commentary from people on the ground with my own feelings. I realize that, at times, views in my poetry (as in much poetry) may be problematic, but I feel an obligation to remain true to my perception in the moment. If it is one of outrage, then it may be expressed in extreme form. I would note that, by setting the stage with section VII, referring to Wannsee, the poem has created a complex point of view, giving the phrases about Israel fuller context. The poem makes that apparent in its final sections, leaving the specifics of the Middle East and returning to more permanent conditions, such as mortality itself. This is approached in yet another formal experiment in section XVI: an attempt at gauging what a belief in religious mythology might feel like, were that polytheistic universe in fact to exist. The Nazi era is again hinted at, in section XVII, juxtaposed, as elsewhere in “Barge,” with figures from the Bush regime.
Fink: Well, if some views in your poetry may be considered “problematic,” readers should realize that they are not necessarily your enduring views, but a moment’s perception that could be and often, later is revised. Or that moment’s perception is in some way overheard or occasioned by someone else’s opinion given earlier. What does come across in the poem in general is both anger at particular social conditions and, as you say, an attempt to situate “the humanity necessary to combat intolerance and prejudice….”
Since you are a classicist, it’s no surprise that you’d include a biography of Hadrian in the poem of that name (88-91). However, in this double-columned text, the fairly straightforward though metrically complex bio on the left is balanced by a right-hand column in which a succession of abstractions may refer to the Roman emperor, but there is no direct allusion to him or Trajan, yet there are references to “Hollywood” (89) and “gangster rhythm” (90). You aren’t expecting us to forge a direct connection between any particular left-hand strophe and its right-hand counterpart. Nevertheless, there must be some relation of mutual commentary. I know you don’t want to baby the reader, but if s/he cries haplessness, do you have some advice for her/him about how to navigate?
Katz: “Hadrian” arose out of my desire to perform something in poetry that would reflect my interest in this historical figure. I began by re-forming my reading of his entry in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. As always, I am aware of the temporal qualities of the works I reference in regard to ancient studies. There is a prejudice against earlier books, under the opinion that, as theories have shifted, earlier studies are irrelevant. I disagree with this approach. As much as I am interested in the latest analyses, I maintain an interest in how an area of study was considered at different times. This is the discipline known as historiography, or the history of history. So, I used the 1949 edition of the OCD, even though there are several later ones. As you note, sensitivity to meter and line breaks allowed me to compose a poem from the prose of Hadrian’s entry, and that formed a column of poetry. I became aware, however, that that would not be satisfactory on its own, as it would be too linear, and too appropriated, so I composed my own mediation on the same story of Hadrian’s life, in my own style. This second column is not a literal line-by-line counterpart to the biography. However, it does correspond formally, line-by-line. There are the same number of lines in both columns, and we took pains in the layout of the book to make sure they lined up correctly. In terms of the relation one to the other, I would say that the best way to read this poem is to read the left-hand column first, then the right-hand column, and finally to contemplate both simultaneously. When I read the right-hand column now, I find many counterparts, in my poetic language, to Hadrian’s story. For example:
a shafted hunt
a longing toward a loss
study and effect
but the blues
to a point
a higher and higher
there are eyes
and dead hands
starts with the “hunt” for power, “heft” as the ability or power one can wield; “study and effect” clearly reflect the process in which ambitious intellect engages; “travel broadens” a time-tested truth, but in Hadrian’s case with specific applications, again as a basis for power. Then there is the personal, subtle, artistic side of the person, in this case characterized as “the blues” — and here, as you note, I allow myself the liberty of tapping into references, aesthetics, from any time period or culture. I would note, in addition, that there are many commonalities between African-American and ancient Roman experiences. Both were slave economies at certain periods, and both derived from polytheistic belief systems. There is in this passage an “effect” and also an “affect”; the “pushing” of ambition effective in Hadrian’s case, until, suddenly, he is there, apparent “to thousands” and “there are eyes” (on him, but also working for him) and “dead hands” (enemies killed, allies killing, necessary corollaries to power). The entire right-hand column can be interpreted in this way, all the way to the final moment: “dim at last / a quiet sleep.”
Fink: That’s very helpful: you guide us to thematic parallels in this “poem including history.”
In “An Openness” (95-96) and “Sidewalk Poem” (101-107), you pledge allegiance to “possibility.” This is connected, of course, with what you earlier identified as a poetics of urban observation and is exemplified, I think, by the following opening lines of “Luis”:
I was walking along and thinking
I saw a way to write a new poem
in stops and starts, close-ups, long shots,
establishing views of the entire city.
I had one doubt: I thought I should
be absent, allowing the poem to accrete
seemingly of its own volition over time.
Then I thought that was not necessary. (20)
The poem capitalizes on the possibilities entailed by the unpredictability of what you will see, hear, smell, etc. from moment to moment as you stroll. But the beautifully casual “not necessary” provokes reflection. I wonder whether it is even a possibility for you, the poet, to “be absent,” as you are the perceiver, selector of perceptions, and the one who wields words. Yes, you can exclude the word “I” from the poem, but it does not absent the poet’s conscious and unconscious intentions. What do you have to say about your presence and/or absence from/in the text and its relation to the pursuit of possibility? And what else do you want to say about possibility in general?
Katz: That is a big question, maybe impossible to answer, but necessary to continue asking. Where does one fit in the flux that constitutes one’s world at any given moment? I believe each person has a duty to engage at some level, which is why mechanisms such as television and the vast swaths of the web which have replaced it are so insidious. They take the person away from his or her natural, particular, experience, and insert him or her into a generalized “paradigm.” If my poetry stands for something, it stands for the desire to be an individual as that is expressed by personal interaction in the world. And once one says that, all kinds of possibility, fantasy, disappointment, exaltation, liberation, collectivity, diversity, are possible. Especially diversity. That is the basic reason one continues to live in a city and doesn’t just give up on the world and move to the wilderness, as Thoreau did. You can analyze the entire book, Swimming Home, in terms of manifestations of possibility. The first poem, “What Vincent Saw on 30th Street,” is an ode to the particular kind of seeing of a people, or a person, who, as Robert Creeley put it, “never finally talked that much.” In “An Openness,” in the line “The limitation, but also possibility,” there is the suggestion that life is neither completely one thing nor the other. Significant for a poet, but it probably applies to other people as well, is the question, in the same poem, “Could it be reckless to be a poet, and could that be one’s salvation?” This connects to the idea, expressed in “Sidewalk Poem,” of the outside. It relates to Gary Snyder’s concept of “The Wild.” The Wild for Snyder is both the outdoors as unaffected as it can be by modern man’s incursions and also the sense of wildness, or risk, inherent in each human being. There is perhaps an urban take on The Wild in “Sidewalk Poem” in the desire it expresses to be outside:
Could be a time for poetry,
but outside, not in
not on the inside looking out but rather
on the outside on the outside looking,
sensing the air, rain, drops, sidewalk
damp cover, delicate, reflection,
in puddles, crimson, magenta, yellow, white, peppermint
not to go back, but present, no we,
just everyone at the moment, in the rain of this city
To get back to the first part of your question, the narrator of this poem is both present and absent. He is aware that he is separate from the people he encounters; he knows he cannot assume commonality, “no we.” But he also is aware that commonality is possible; it requires first of all going outside of one’s comfort zone and probably going out of oneself to find the connection with another person. That is always possible.