By Shivaji Sengupta and Natsuko Hirata
Natsuko Hirata: You have been writing poems for over 30 years.
Thomas Fink: Actually, 50 years. I started at age 14. I’ve only been publishing in magazines for three and a half decades. I wrote some of the poems in my first book, Surprise Visit (1993) in 1990, so my Selected Poems & Poetic Series (Marsh Hawk P, 2016) covers a quarter century of poetry.
Hirata: The changes in your environment must have affected your thinking and emotions. How have the style and content of your poems changed along the way? Or are they separate from your life and thought?
Fink: It would be hard to keep “the style and content of [my] poems” distinct “from [my] life and thought,” wouldn’t it? And yet I haven’t tried to be very conscious of the connection, perhaps because I don’t set out to write autobiographical or “confessional” poetry.
Over the years, I’ve written some poems that could be considered political, and a handful made it into Selected Poems & Poetic Series. Despite the thirteen-year interval, it’s no shock that “Elite Sands” (8), which alludes to the first Gulf War, has much in common thematically with “Responsible Fires Inserted” (36-7), which alludes to the second. Six of the seven series that comprise the second half of the book sometimes touch on political concerns in a given poem, but neither poems nor series can usually be pinned down to such themes. “Yinglish Strophes 2” (113) and “14” (125) are exceptions in that they refer directly throughout to politics of their times, as well as implicit comparisons with other eras, but the personae (if they exist) in the two poems do not necessarily offer my own perspective. “Burgh’s Bloom” is about Mayor Bloomberg’s long reign in New York City, but frankly, various issues alluded to might have also related to what occurred during the times of Mayors John Lindsay, Abe Beame, David Dinkins (who is obliquely mentioned), and Rudy Giuliani.
Otherwise, my interest in various aspects of psychology, in how communication occurs and is thwarted, and in how social trends limit or enable individuals seem to have been relatively constant throughout. For example, “Logorrhea” and “Couple” in Gossip probably have some of the same thematic components as various poems in the much later “Goad” and “Dusk Bowl Intimacies” series.
Some aspects of style have proven constant, whereas a few particular stylistic changes are very noticeable. After my second book, Gossip (2001), I started writing deliberately in series, and I only realized 13 years later that “And Called It Milk” in Gossip should be configured as a series and should not be considered a “long poem.”
Also, as I was writing After Taxes (2004), I found that free verse and the usual couplets, tercets, and quatrains were getting to be a dull default mode. in nearly every poem in that book, I count the number of words in a line, and the stanza patterns go up and down, sometimes just up, sometimes only down. And sometimes the title is the first line. In “Bootleg Fretwork Pouring” (23), the title is the first line, and the stanzas have two, three, four, five, and six lines. The word-count of each line alternates consistently between five and three.
I’ve used these two modes fairly frequently since 2004, but another transformation occurred in No Appointment Necessary (2006): I started to create visual shapes instead of stanzas and/or strophes, and some of these shapes bore a resemblance to those in my paintings.) Now a majority of my poems have this visual component.
Shivaji Sengupta: In my opinion, you do unusual things with your poems’ form and content, almost redefine the terms from what we understand by them in literary criticism. Can you please explain the form and content of your poetry in terms of the interrelationship between word, art, and music?
By “art” I refer to the concrete art of some of your poems.
Fink: I think that, in much visual poetry, spatial arrangement that departs from the accustomed linearity of free verse influences the reader’s process of meaning-making. In my shaped poems, I solicit the mutual pressure of words’ and clauses’ signifying possibilities and shapes’ constraining and exfoliating tendencies. This also happens in the enjambments and end-stops of free verse, accentual verse, and texts that involve a counting of words per line (something I do), but curves and angles of shaped poems may slow down or speed up a reading process in a different way than these other modes. Except in the “Goad” series, I haven’t intended shapes for series or individual poems to offer referential or emblematic “hooks.” One example would be the smaller quasi-sphere on top of a larger quasi-sphere in the “Jigsaw Hubbub” series which probably encourages a slowing down in the second, longer part.
When I develop a shape or ensemble of shapes for a poem or painting, I tend to read each abstractly. I prefer somewhat arbitrary collisions between the visual and verbal elements. I’m not George Herbert nor was meant to be, and not only from a religious perspective. Of course, when Willem de Kooning was asked whether it was possible at a certain point in art history to paint a face, he retorted that it was impossible not to; any intended abstraction can be contextualized as a figurative construct.
Rene Magritte’s famous painting, “This Is Not a Pipe,” goads viewers—as Foucault points out in his book of that name—to consider the duplicity of the sign, the instability of the will to signification, so all of the pipe shapes in my “Goad” series may reflect that. Yet the poems, unlike Mark Young’s terrific “Magritte poem” series, are not ekphrastic; they present different kinds of goading.
You speak of music in relation to word and art. When one reads aloud, enjambment and visual spacing can both mark temporal intervals that mimic spatial ones. Charles Bernstein has noted that he and some other poets do not necessarily use pauses to represent such intervals while reading, while others do. I try to follow Robert Creeley in doing so.
But I’d like to focus on literal music in my “Dented Reprise” series, which I sing at readings. They are not “misheard” pop songs. I know the lyrics; I’m intentionally swerving from them, as in this excerpt from “Dented Reprise 11”:
You keep buyin’
when you ought to be sleuthin’.
Eying little swirls
in plaid. Repent.
Let ‘em off. Here’s a sweater
from your shelf. (146)
Readers who know the original songs can sing the songs in their head and play the first sentence of my rhyming or slant rhyming “reprise” above against Nancy Sinatra’s original “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” “Buyin’” and “lyin’” should rub up against each other, as should “sleuthin’” and Sinatra’s “truthin’.” The same goes for the difference between Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung,” where the pairs are “swirls”/”girls,” “plaid”/”bad,” and “Repent”/”intent.” Indeed, the character’s “bad intention” is something that most people would say should occasion his “repentance” in some way or another. The last two sentences above are from Steely Dan’s “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number,” and there are three transformations, the most salient, perhaps, being the change from the original “self” to its spatialization, “shelf.”
Sengupta: I am fascinated with your “sliding signifiers,” by which I mean the way you bracket words into other words to create two separate signifieds Do you do this because you want your readers, like Alice through the looking glass, to consider multiple contexts as you kaleidoscope your signifiers? What goes through your mind as you do this?
Fink: I did the bracketing mostly in my first book, Surprise Visit, and a little in my second. I don’t thinking there’s much bracketing in my Selected Poems & Poetic Series. I got the idea from Derrida and poststructuralist literary critics, but actually, Richard Kostelanetz had been doing linguistic divisions and doublings in his poetry years before; I just didn’t know at the time. (He and I discuss this in my May 2018 exchange in Dichtung Yammer.) But I think the creation of “two separate signifieds” does occur in different ways through my work, especially in the shaped poems, where words are frequently broken into two. For example, returning to my “Goad” series, I note that in “Goad 16,” the main clause of one sentence, if placed in prose, would read “Baksheesh got your dogs through Dartmouth.” But when I put a lot of space between “bak” and “sheesh” (167), I’m encouraging the reader to find the word “back”—with the implication of “backwards” (morally wrong, something to goad another person about)—and an exclamation like “Jeez” or “wow,” thus reinforcing the surprise or indignation that often attends “baksheesh.” And then the division of the Ivy League college into “Dart” on one line and “mouth” on the next suggests that one’s speech can sting, can be a weapon—if the one goading is consciously aware of this or not—or that one’s speech is quick and decisive. In “Jigsaw Hubbub 7,” here is a prose statement of a double prepositional phrase: “In the minimum security of a rabbit hutch.” The splitting of “mini” and “mum” (228) signifies diminution. Whereas “mum” as British slang for the American “mom” or as an abbreviation for “chrysanthemum” doesn’t play against or with anything else in the poem, but it does evoke the cliché, “Mum’s the word,” about pressure to keep quiet about something. Does the word-split signify a minimalization through silencing that is nevertheless articulated?
During the process of writing such work, sometimes I’m consciously testing multiple possibilities of signification and sometimes I’m focused on something else, and the emergence of polysignifying is happening unconsciously. But then I revise, and, increasingly if not totally, linguistic dynamics become conscious.
Sengupta: You are one of the best teachers of poetry I have ever met, especially conventional poetry of those like Wordsworth and Yeats, yet (!) some people have said they do not understand your poetry. To me, you do not write poetry so that we can understand its meaning. By varying techniques, through words, drawing, and music, you invite us to “uncover” meaning. Please give us a little insight into your process of writing poems so we may at least infer your intent.
Fink: You’ve been extremely dedicated as a professor and administrator to the pursuit of what you at Boricua College call “educational facilitation,” and you’ve been an important innovator in that area, so your compliment is very generous. I hope that some of my students in Writing through Literature and Introduction to Poetry courses wouldn’t give you too much of a hard time about that statement.
Do those who don’t understand my poetry “understand” Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” or “Among School Children” any better? If not, development of both close and sociohistorically contextualized reading skills are in order. If they do, I’d try to learn about the difference between how they read Yeats’ text and how they read mine.
But also, how much of my poetry have they read? Some of my poems—for example, “Burrito Imbalance” and “Do Dayglo Nights Defile”—are more challenging than others like the “And Called It Milk” and “Dusk Bowl Intimacies” series. And is such a reader is stymied by the conceptual challenge of individual sentences or fragments or by difficulty finding a context to make sense of the juxtaposition of two successive ones? If the latter problem, I have a lot of company among twentieth and twenty-first century poets.
Here are the opening lines of “And Called It Milk 1”; they provide an example of how many of my individual sentences in particular poems are easily understandable:
I’m going to stand on my mother
and it won’t hurt
because I’m good. (90)
The first line can be literal or figurative. The literal reading should cause no problems because if a mother is sitting or lying down, a child can stand on her. And how much imagination does it really take to view it figuratively: don’t many of us learn to “stand up” as adults because our parents have laid some sort of social and economic foundation? If it might be painful when a child becomes independent and doesn’t “need” the parent’s guidance as before, the latter can recognize that the child is competent (“good”) and can take solace in that.
The next strophe does not exactly elaborate on the “idea” in the first one, but it indicates that a child speaker is still reflecting on her relationship with her mother, so I don’t think that the contextual “break” is unmanageable, if it’s a break at all:
When Mommy was a little girl,
I was there.
I was in your vagina.
Now I’m the you know what. (90)
One might say that 50% of the eventual child’s DNA is potentially “there,” but I suppose that the affective element is more important than “scientific” “truth.”
Shivaji, you distinguish between a poet providing “understanding” and giving an “invitation” to the reader to “uncover” meaning. Frequently, in the first draft of a poem and sometimes for several drafts, I can’t provide an understanding for myself as first reader; I usually have a limited sense of how words in a sentence or fragment and adjacent sentences or fragments can be placed into a discernible context or an ensemble of contexts. By the second draft I’m inviting myself to uncover meaning on the one hand yet deferring the development of too rigid a sense of context, too constraining a box, on the other. In writing “Do Dayglo Nights Defile” in the early part of the last decade, I might have arrived at sentence-fragments like “Evangelical puff-pusch:/ groin-free seminar bobbing for/ durable rubble” (21) after discovering mid-way that the poem seemed to be reflecting a collision between articulation of violent sexual energies/pursuit of cathexis and the formation of fundamentalist religious discourses/behavioral and ideational restrictions. Not that I had that precise interpretation in mind during the process, but I had a general sense of it at some juncture that guided many of my linguistic choices afterward.
Much as I appreciate Allen Ginsberg’s accomplishments, I can’t agree with his “first thought, best thought.” Nor do I cherish the idea that a poem is a transcript of “consciousness” or “the unconscious” that must not be tampered with; if I don’t tamper, I produce shit. To risk generality, I revise as heavily as necessary to make a poem’s linguistic energy flow as effective as possible, though there are no abstract paradigms against which I can measure a particular draft.
Hirata: Even a single poem gives many different feelings to each reader.
Also there are sometimes cases in which readers interpret more deeply than the author. Is agreement between the reader and author important to you?
Fink: As a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist for the last 44 years, I have never wanted to include Buddhist doctrine or concepts in my poetry, as I’d rather leave interpretation to the priests who have studied Buddhism so rigorously for their entire lives; I’d rather not perpetrate unfortunate deviations. However, when a fellow lay believer named Tony told me that a poem (which did not make it into my Selected Poems) reflected the Mahayana Buddhist concept of the Ten Worlds, I was surprised and pleased, because I had not consciously intended to do this, but perhaps a positive effect was created.
A reader who theorizes about your poetics can help you get a more precise sense of its components. Shivaji’s review of After Taxes (Jacket 2, no. 26, October 2004) is a case in point. Shivaji, when you speak in the review of my efforts to disrupt expected meanings, I agree but am not surprised, but I learn something when you write of “a set of word combinations” in my poems “that act as cognitive signifiers” beyond an apparent arbitrariness, and you cite the example of the sentence, “Skewers are/ hot, eh?” (20) as a “cognitively significant assumption,” an “irreducible” one, that stands in relation to “meaning that is produced in and of the words themselves, through the complex interplay of signifiers.” This aspect of your deconstructive approach clarifies matters that had only grasped intuitively.
Shivaji also does excellent close reading of my work in that piece, and that, Natsuko, is the area, I think, that your question pinpoints. Another reader could locate a different center of thematic gravity from what I find for a given text, and this perspective might convince me more than my own. “Aha, that’s what I was doing here!” Yes, I hope that a reader will often interpret more deeply than I; it gives me greater access to possibilities in the text I have produced. Could this involve access to my unconscious? To make that claim would be unfalsifiable.
However, you know that I would be a liar if I were to say to you that I can accept any assertion from a reader. On the one hand, if a reader has an interpretation that upsets me, then I need to ask myself whether I might be upset because the reader accurately reveals psychological data that makes me feel uneasy about my construction of my own identity or characteristics, and in that case, if I’m open, I can begin to change a negative aspect of my thinking or behavior. On the other hand, some readings really are sloppy or insufficiently supported by textual evidence. In these cases, it would be nice to convince the reader that s/he is “wrong,” but I have no authority to impose what I consider my intention as a writer on the reader. Tough luck!
Finally, I’ll raise a fine example of a reading that allows me to engage, belatedly, in a fruitful dialogue with the reader. The poem is “Minimalist”:
Handwriting like blush odor
you demand stringent marble
square enough empire—
platform atom limn
again tenant shirks
guess edit perennial—
unsnared equation predicament
swarm interstices. (4)
Stephen Paul Miller contends that “the first sentence can be read as a relatively conventional sentence, with the subject ‘handwriting’” (“Periodizing Ashbery and His Influence,“ The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Susan M. Schultz, U of Alabama P, 1995, p. 265). Well, that’s true, and a part of his analysis that I don’t need to quote gets that I was trying for a representation of a minimalist painter or sculptor’s “stringent” desire for the banishment of “handwriting,” “blush,” and “odor”—evidence of personality. However, even though I wrote it a quarter century ago, I remember that that I wanted the first line to be its own fragment and the second one to act like a separate sentence. Miller continues: “The second stanza starts with an imperative that implies the subject ‘you.’ The imperative voice dominates the rest of the poem, charging the seemingly unsyntactic poem and equating the second person to ‘handwriting.’”
When I wrote the poem, I thought that “you” was comparable to the subject of a sentence that involved a list: you “demand,” you “think,” and you “square,” and then the result of the active development of this “empire” is a physical (tangible) and aesthetic “platform.” I see the noun “atom” and the verb “limn” acting as adjectives, modifying what we know of the “platform.” I regard the third strophe as a new sentence; the “tenant” is not the “you,” but that which in the composition resists the artist’s minimalist intention, and I read “guess” as functioning like a noun, adjective, or adverb, not as a verb. If it were a verb, I would’ve used “guesses” to run parallel with “shirks”—shirks and guesses. “Guess edit” sounds like “guest edit.” So I’m not telling the “you” to guess, but saying that guesswork is involved, as the minimalist must perennially “edit” to try to stay true to her/his intention. Thus, I read the third and fourth lines as standing in apposition to the first two lines within a kind of sentence. “Swarm interstices” could be a command, but I see it as an inversion: interstices are swarming, and that’s the challenge for the minimalist.
Though I think that Miller doesn’t account for how lines six and seven don’t follow the imperative pattern, I’d affirm both of our interpretive moves, since they’re founded on equally valid decisions about how to make sense of syntax. My intentional departures from normative American English sentence structure and the fact that some words can be read as both nouns and verbs permit both alternatives. A very useful aspect of Miller’s reading that contrasts interestingly with my sense that the speaker is describing the minimalist’s actions and difficulties is that he shows the poem’s speaker dictating to the minimalist what to do and what must happen in that process; another is the association of “you” and “handwriting,” despite the minimalist’s attempt to divorce him/herself from the imprint of the personal.