EXCHANGE ON ELAINE EQUI’S SENTENCES AND RAIN (Coffee House P, 2015)

Thomas Fink and Melissa Mantilla

 

Thomas Fink: Using clichés “sincerely,” without recognition of their staleness, is often considered the mark of a bad poet, one who does not care enough about the riches of language. Using clichés ironically can work, but it can also prove a hollow exercise. Aside from using a few hackneyed expressions outright, stitching together pieces of different clichés or changing a word or two, things that John Ashbery, among others, has been very adept at for a long time, might offer a useful middle ground between these two poles. In “Cut to the Chase,” I believe that you occupy the territory between “sincerity”/literalness and irony, and it really works:

 

Get a load of the gridlock on that one.
Somebody dumped sugar in her synthesizer.

Just thinking of it gives my brain a wedgie.
Seems like one thing is always in the process

of overtaking another even if they move slower
than the decline of the Roman Empire….

But it doesn’t change the fact
that certain information is still missing.

I guess we could sit and wait.
Does anybody here remember how to dance? (13)

 

What are your thoughts about the way you situate and tweak clichés in this poem, in Sentences and Rain overall, and in your poetry in general.

 

Elaine Equi: Thank God Ashbery has made it okay to use clichés in poems with impunity. In fact, I’m sure I was reading a lot of JA when I wrote “Cut to the Chase” and was probably taking full advantage of the permission his work offers in that department. I actually like clichés in poems much better than I do in everyday life. The lens or frame of the poem encourages us to see them as language constructs, rather than for their meaning alone.

So much of our thinking is premised on clichés – access points of commonality – which serve as a kind of shorthand. In one poem, I have an aphorism stating: “To be understood, clichés are as necessary as syntax or grammar.” I have no problem with clichés, even unaltered ones, but I do especially like the practice of rewriting them, as you say, to “tweak” their meaning. Advertising always does that – lure you in with something that sounds familiar and then surprise you by giving it an unexpected twist. Why should they get to have all the fun?

One of my favorite books to do that is Harry Mathews’ hilarious Selected Declarations of Dependence. In it, he uses Oulipo techniques to transform traditional proverbs into witty modern pronouncements like, “Every drug has its day” and “Every crowd has a silver lining.”

Melissa Mantilla: In “Date with an Undertaker,” the “undertaker” seems to be a controlling dominant alpha male who makes decisions for his partners and does not allow them to express themselves unless given his permission to do so: “Only their eyes could flutter open/at the end when he gave the signal-kiss” (30).

 

He controls their lives and eases the severity of these actions by playing mind games—for example, presenting his partners with flowers— a cliched romantic sentiment:

 

He liked to bathe, dress,
do their makeup himself.

Always brought flowers.
Made them sleep in a coffin. (30)

 

I believe the role of undertaker and of the corpse/deceased individual is symbolic of what an abusive relationship can do to the emotional well being of the victim. The partner is “dead” inside. Without the freedom to express herself, dress herself or have complete autonomy, she cannot be herself. Therefore, she does not exist in spirit; she is just a body to be used for sex.

On the other hand, the poem might be about necrophilia. The man has a dark fantasy or fetish that he satisfies by persuading his partners to play the role of the corpse. The older woman’s advice to the young one is: “…she took a special pride in doing absolutely nothing and that this was the kind of thing that couldn’t be faked” (pg. 30 lines 12-14). They might be prostitutes sharing stories about  one strange client. Perhaps the older woman is warning the younger one that necrophilia is a fantasy that cannot be satisfied by role playing alone— perhaps the younger one should be wary about the client’s eventual urge to have the real thing and may kill her.

Who or what did you intend the undertaker to represent? Are the older woman’s words meant just for the younger woman or could it also be advice for the reader: “This… kind of thing that couldn’t be faked”?

Equi: This poem was inspired by an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where the character Sally is embarrassed to be dating an undertaker. I found it funny, and oddly, something of a turn on. As a longtime fan of supernatural and horror fiction, it wasn’t hard to channel my inner goth girl and slip into both roles in this fantasy.

I think women’s sexuality is often “scripted” in ways that seem stifling. This poem is just an exaggerated reflection of that. I meant it as a playful satire. When the older woman says she takes pride “in doing absolutely nothing,” I like her confidence. She reminds me of a rigorous minimalist artist who insists that her work speaks for itself.

Mantilla: In “Vanilla Orchids” I believe the speaker closes his/her eyes in order to understand what the world is like for the blind woman. The speaker is determined to explore the flowers (ideas) in his/her mind and can only do so in complete darkness where he/she cannot be distracted or influenced by the outside world: “Settled into the Oriental shawl of her chair and closed my eyes” (44). This may represent wisdom or knowledge because of Asia’s enormous contributions to math and science. What resonance does the word “orchids” specifically have for you? And what does “vanilla,” a popular note in many perfumes and said to encourage relaxation, evoke?

Equi: I wrote this after going to a restaurant where a strikingly elegant blind woman had been having dinner. She was beautifully dressed and adorned with jewelry, but what really caught my attention was her perfume. I’m very sensitive to fragrance and will often try to guess what kind someone is wearing. I can’t say for certain that hers was orchid, but it was complex, refined, and probably expensive. There was also something sweet about it. I chose to describe it as vanilla, but wasn’t sure that was the right word, since it often connotes plain or basic, and this woman was neither. Recently, however, I discovered that vanilla actually comes from the seedpods of certain orchids, and that vanilla orchids produce what some consider to be the quintessential orchid scent. So maybe I was onto something. Often, we say we want to see through someone’s eyes, but you’re right, in this case I wanted to smell those flowers in the same concentrated way that she must.

Fink: I want to continue with Melissa’s line of questioning about the role of sensory imagery. Willem de Kooning called “content… a glimpse,” and he identified himself as “a slipping glimpser.” In “Jaillight,” you begin with another of the five senses: “Forgotten/ spice// on the tip/ of my tongue,” then go on to refer to “poetry” in connection with “poverty” (adding a v and shifting two letters), and in the final terse couplet, speak of “the poetry/ of pouring in” (14). Perhaps de Kooning’s glimpse that fuels a painting is similar to sensory data “pouring in” that results for you in a poem. Surely, “light” pours into a “jail,” and for the jailbird poet, this is especially spicy because it has been forgotten. What is happening in this poem that enables the relation of that “spice” and “poetry” as “poverty” and “pouring in”? And what implications might your findings here have for your poetry in general or work in this book?

Equi: When I haven’t written something for a while, and then a poem finally comes, it does feel like a kind of spice that’s been missing is added back into my everyday use of language. Jail could be the narrowness of my own thought, or the banality of even a comfortable life. The relationship between “poetry” and “poverty” seems all too obvious because poetry is the most financially undervalued of the arts. Painters, musicians, novelists, and filmmakers have, at least, the possibility of making a substantial amount of money. Poets, on the other hand, are often given nothing or only a small token honorarium for their work. Of course, some poets teach or may receive cash awards, but they are certainly not the majority. In our capitalistic society, to choose spiritual or intellectual satisfaction over material rewards makes the poet something of a renunciant and/or a deviant.

Another gloss on the poverty of poetry comes from an interpretation I once read of the beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Here poor in spirit was not taken to mean sad or depressed, but rather, empty. If one’s mind is not cluttered with preconceived ideas and judgements, it leaves room for something else – poetry—to pour in.

Fink: In such poems as “Darkness Adds Beauty” and “Restaurant Art,” you continue the somewhat ironic gaze at consumerism that often appears in your earlier poetry. And you begin the earlier poem, which uses William Carlos Williams’ triadic line technique, with a recognition of the emotional power of chiaroscuro:

 

Darkness Adds Beauty

 

To whatever
face or object
comes forward. (45)

 

Following the opening gambit, though, you make a distinction between centuries. This involves the separation of a pre-consumer culture’s spiritual aura from the commodity-centered ethos that has been with us since then:

 

The nineteenth century is full
of haloed humble beings
flashing the sign of their presence.

In the twentieth century, only mystics
like Walter Benjamin would notice
and lament the loss of darkness

in a world overpopulated with things. (45)

 

What’s interesting, though, is that even if lack of “darkness” does not “add beauty,” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, light can also be effective in particular ways. The speaker recalls seeing a “nativity scene// on the roof of a department store,” and the various figures are “lit up and peering down// into our small car,/ reminding us to rejoice, and to buy,/ and to rejoice in our buying” (45). One reading would indicate that the poem is contrasting the noble, spiritual past with the debased, materialistic present, and I think this is so (especially with the authority of Walter Benjamin’s discourse of the aura and its loss at your service), and that some nostalgia is evident. But that interpretation is incomplete: chiaroscuro used to inculcate religious values is no less of an aesthetic trick to manipulate viewers—in this case, to embrace a version of piety—as the fully lit nativity scene selling the “things” that overpopulate the world. Those “haloed humble beings” might not seem so saintly and “humble” without the configuration of darkness.

As you were bringing the poem into being, if you can recall that process, what were your thoughts about layers of irony in the contrasts and commonalities you were presenting? And what are you thinking about this as you review “Darkness Adds Beauty?”

Equi: Rereading this poem, I think you’re correct in calling it nostalgic – and for a period (the 19th century) I’ve never experienced, so I may have been idealizing the era in a way that is perhaps too reductive. I wrote this shortly after Hurricane Sandy. I was lucky in that the aftermath for me was not more serious than being without heat or electricity for about a week. Yes, it was inconvenient, but I found I rather enjoyed the darkness – how it forced me to move slower than usual and always carry a flashlight. There was no radio, no TV, no streetlights.

The blackout was like going on one of those radical retreats where they take away all your electronic devices. I’m always complaining that technology has caused us to be overstimulated and unfocused. In this poem, it was the darkness that I found soothing. But I could also have spoken about the silence. Imagine how much power words had in the 19th century – how little they had to compete with. I can’t help but sigh when I think of it.

Mantilla: Each line in “Literary Lipsticks” is a different shade of red and is attached to a literary piece or writer. I thought this poem was very clever because one can put on a certain shade of lipstick, emulate the style of the writer attached to the color’s style, and then change to a different shade and emulate another writer’s style; the mouth allows the individual to express themselves:

 

Red wheelbarrow: Williams Carlos Williams
I have eaten the plums: Williams Carlos Williams
Poppies in October: Sylvia Plath
Pink Christmas: (I may be wrong but is it Frank Koerner?)
Red Weather: Pauls Toutonghi/Janet McAdams
A rose is a rose: William Shakespeare
Jaffa juice: Barbara Guest
Watermelon Sugar: Richard Brautigan
Frost at midnight: Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (78)

 

What do you aim to do with this catalog of allusions?

Equi: I’ve always thought a good job for a poet, and for me in particular, would be to get paid to come up with cool names for different colors. As a child, one of my favorite toys was a set of color swatches my mom passed along to me after she redecorated our home. I loved flipping through it like a rolodex. I also like the way new shades become popular each season, and then fall out of fashion.

But to get back to my poem, the names of most lipsticks are so evocative, almost any list of real ones will sound poetic. I wanted to play with that quality. At first, I was going to make up my own names, but then I began to think of how so many titles and lines from famous poems would make fantastic lipsticks. Who wouldn’t want to wear “Red Wheelbarrow” or “I Have Eaten the Plums”? Those would work well on anyone.

Btw: I confess, I’m the author of “Pink Christmas” (from my book, Click and Clone). I wanted to make a cameo appearance – like Alfred Hitchcock does in his movies. The “Red Weather” I had in mind is from the last line of Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock.” “A Rose Is a Rose” is a Gertrude Stein reference.

I could come up with others, but I think my job is done. I delivered the concept. Now it’s up to some smart manufacturer to produce the lipsticks. One novelist told me she could see them selling well at the next AWP conference.

 

Fink: “A Story Begins” articulates aspects of the relationship between “a story” and “us”:

A Story Begins

The same as other stories, but we follow along in case
something different might happen.

Just one different thing. It leads us to a ledge and pushes us over.

Every story has a climax in a way life doesn’t.

It puts us back where it found us. It opens our eyes, which
weren’t closed but felt that way because what we saw was
happening inside the story. (25)

 

In their search for the new, I agree that many readers want to be pushed over a mental “ledge” into discomfort, but we don’t die; we go back to our ongoing existence that has no climax. (To take issue with your generalization and say that death is the climax of life would ignore that, in fiction, a resolution or tying up of loose ends often follows the climax, whereas human death has no aftermath that can be experienced by the one who dies.) The poem continues:

 

We are the excess of the story—that which it cannot contain.

Washed ashore.

What was the story about?

I can’t remember. A dwindling, dimwitted tribe.

Every month when the moon was full, they’d sacrifice another
virgin but could never figure out why the crops still wouldn’t
grow. (25)

 

What the “tribe” can’t understand is how to manipulate cause and effect to achieve a desired positive result; they keep making causes that have repeatedly failed. Your final sentence does not seem to endorse fatalism, determinism, or (more optimistically) free will amid constraints, but it offers the anticlimax of dimwittedness tied to repetition compulsion. Perhaps this compulsion in the story mirrors the drive to repetition of a reader pursuing narrative in the hope that “something” really “different might happen.” Does “A Story Beings” evince pessimism about human desire in the pursuit and perhaps construction of narration? Or do you situate your perspective(s) on “stories” elsewhere?

Equi: It seems clear the speaker in this poem feels stuck and is looking desperately for a story to escape into. What I find curious is that she seems to want/expect the characters in the story to be the ones to change – and surprise her by doing “just one different thing.” But how can characters change? Their story is already written. I especially like the last line of the poem, not so much for the joke, but because there’s a sense of the speaker recognizing her own situation in that of the “dwindling dimwitted tribe” that keeps relying on old superstitions and ceremonies. At that moment of self-awareness, she’s able to see herself as both the reader and a character in the story — she’s inside and outside it.

I keep playing in different poems I’ve written with the idea of a story being a portal where readers and characters can exchange roles and share identities in an interactive way. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this theory. But I know other contemporary writers are experimenting with narrative structures that are more on the order of virtual worlds. Instead of a story being a separate thing, it might somehow become more immersive. I’ve even heard of writers that let you choose your own ending or modify their stories in other ways. It sounds like science fiction, but maybe we’re just developing new ways of reading and writing to reflect the technology of our own time.

Fink: When you consider Sentences and Rain as a whole, do you find that there were various stylistic features—such as the triadic line in “Darkness Adds Beauty” and the book’s title-poem, poems featuring couplets in contrast with single-strophe pieces, numbered texts with less regular patterns—that you were motivated to explore and develop? Or were formal choices secondary to the unfolding of phrases and sentences?

Equi: The book is very grounded in the poems and poetics of the Objectivist movement. There are two poems dedicated to Zukofsky, a poem for WC Williams’ birthday, and numerous other winks and nods to their aesthetic ideas and formal innovations. I came to them early on when I first discovered Lorine Niedecker, but quickly fell in love with all of them. I was teaching a seminar on them at The New School while I wrote much of this manuscript, so it’s really saturated with their influences.

Their clarity and precision never fails to delight me. I have a metaphysical side that keeps me from being a total materialist, but in this work, I tried to downplay my surreal impulses, and in several poems, at least, take the simplest most direct approach.

Mantilla: Which two or three poems might compete to be the book’s singular ars poetica?

Equi : “If I Have Just One Word” comes closest to summing up my poetic style. I try to be economical and deliberate in my word choice. I like haiku, concrete poems, minimalism – forms that allow every word to shine.

To return to the Objectivists again (from my last answer) I was thinking of them when I wrote the last lines of this poem

 

or maybe one of those
nonchalant, writerly words,

a preposition, pronoun,
conjunction on its way
to the soiree of a paragraph,

something to say
there’s plenty more
where that come from. (4)

 

George Oppen had a book called This In Which, and Zukofsky worked all his life on a 800 plus page sequence called A. For as much as these writers gravitated toward little words, they were incredibly prolific.

Mantilla: What moment in the book, or image from the poems, would you like your reader to remember most?

Equi: I’m happy with whatever lines or images speak to readers. I don’t have an agenda. Whenever I’m teaching and we finish a book, we always go around the room and each read our favorite lines and poems. It’s great to hear what everyone chooses. Invariably, someone will make me stop and reconsider something I had passed over too quickly. There’s a lot to be said for reading poetry aloud in groups.

Personally, I’m partial to three poems toward the end of the book: “Muffin of Sunsets,” “I Never Seem To Arrive” and “Stationary Yet Adrift.” They all have this feeling of being suspended, hopefully in a pleasurable way – “like a ship in a bottle/ of moonlight.”

 

 

 

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