by Stephen Paul Miller
Stephen Paul Miller: I want to start out by asking you about the title of your new book, Zoom (The Word Works, 2018). It makes me think of 70s zoom shots and their relation to close textual enjoyment.
Susan Lewis: Stephen, you’re spot on about the title, which does indeed refer to the cinematic zoom, as well as to other connotations of the word (having to do with the speedy quality of the poems themselves, but also the feeling that we are rushing towards our demise, on the global as well as individual level). At the same time, as you point out, these poems are interested in zooming in for a closer look at language — reimagining and repurposing it for new pleasures and new meanings. It’s funny, though, now that you ask: when I think of the film shots I’ve admired, most of them are not zooms — although many do have a lot to do with attention, and how it wanders (landing at times on something of unexpected importance).
Miller: Is the “zoom” digression?
Lewis: It can seem to be.
Miller: Is the wandering enjoyable? What kind of relation does it have with language? I can see how everything is about digression. After all, when we digress we clear space. That establishes the subject. Maybe we focus by digressing?
Lewis: I agree! Plus, digression gets us to the subject we don’t know yet. It requires a kind of surrender on the part of the reader as well as the author, and I think that’s rich territory.
Miller: But it’s interesting because we surrender to the subject we know and don’t know at the same time. As you say in the poem in Zoom called “I Can’t Say How We Got This Far”—“I tremble for more of the same.” I think of how Greta Garbo says “again” while she explores what it is to be kissed in Ninotchka.
Lewis: True — although in that poem, the clause preceding the one you quote is “either way we might be sorry, and sometimes I am.” So, not only is there the territory of the known/unknown, but there is ambivalence towards them both.
Miller: Is that ambivalence significant in that the poem proceeds by complex ratios of compensating and echoing?
Lewis: Yes! A bit like two steps forward, one step back – or a braid, in which opposite strands are introduced and integrated, in order to progress. Another implication of ambivalence is that it exposes the multiplicity of points of view we encompass. This gives us the potential to change! Zoom is very much about perspective and point of view, its potency and multiplicity.
Miller: Wow! Of course one thinks of Cubism, and yet do you think that can be clichéd? I’m thinking of Picasso once telling Stein that Cubism lets the viewer see the subject from many different angles causing them to both laugh because Picasso had said something that sounded too canned.
Lewis: Well, clichés are clichés for a reason! I think that particular impulse of cubism remains interesting, and relevant — especially in the context of language, from which people still tend to expect more representational transparency than they do of painting.
Miller: Let’s get back to your title, Zoom. Do any zoom shots in particular films intrigue you?
Lewis: What come to mind are obvious ones, like the famous opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, or Antonioni’s wandering camera in Red Desert, L’Avventura, Blow-Up, and The Passenger (I remember one interior shot in which the camera wanders away from the characters to ‘look at’ a bug on a wall). And then there’s the vertiginous zooming in-and-out that recurs in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which is also about subjectivity and point of view). But the most remarkable zoom shot I have ever seen is in Michael Snow’s experimental film Wavelength, in which, if I remember correctly, the camera zooms in across a room, continuously and incredibly slowly, for the film’s entire (and excruciating!) 45 minutes. I saw it decades it ago, but it made a lasting impression, perhaps especially because it was such a strange combination of boring and amazing! Fundamentally, though, it forced the viewer to pay attention to attention. Also: to consider the passage of time, and how it changes our point of view. In 45 minutes, Wavelength evoked what we all experience over the course of our ‘real’ lives, in which our own slow but continual process of change, and that of the people we’re closest to, is as imperceptible as it is impossible to miss – or avoid. By NOT trying to entertain, Snow made a piece of art which etched itself in my memory — in contrast, for instance, to contemporary blockbusters, whose glut of hyped-up and patently incredible action can be paradoxically dull!
Miller: Reading Zoom brought to mind Conceptual poetry – which is, to some extent, found poetry – in which it’s important that the ‘poet’ found, rather than originated or created, the material – in contrast with how it might seem that you write (in which what’s found is intermingled with what is made). Which makes me think of Rauschenberg’s work from the 60’s, which has his voice/personality, but uses found material. So, are we stuck in that moment? Is that still basically what you’re doing? If not, how is it different?
Lewis: I don’t belong to any poetic ‘school’ or movement. It’s not that I don’t respect the value of such affiliation for other writers – but it’s not for me. Nor, as a matter of aesthetic preference or praxis, do I feel a deep affinity for the central notion of Conceptual poetry, the overt absence of the ‘author’ in the text. Like most provocations, Conceptualism makes interesting points. But on some Conceptualists’ own account, the value/content of the work often inheres in the exercise; the works are not meant to be rewarding to actually experience. I’m a lot more old school: I’m interested in art that asks for close textual engagement.
While Conceptualism is a particularly aggressive way to discard the author, Proceduralism might be seen as another. But there are techniques associated with that approach, like automatic writing, which I find more interesting, as ways to ditch conscious control, and release the contributions of the artist’s subconscious. Although I don’t have any such describable practice, my writing process often resembles steering a car down a steep and winding road. The trick is to sustain as much velocity as possible, without crashing or stalling out! It’s a balancing act between impulse and judgment, momentum and control.
I’m not sure I ultimately believe in the ‘found’ vs ‘made’ dichotomy. After all, everything found is made: by other makers, or by culture – which is to say, other makers! And, conversely, what is made is based on what is found. So in a way, most art is about collage. It might use ‘actual’ found bits, or it might depict them, or refer to them, or eschew them – in all of these ways, it is interacting with them, as all artists interact with what came before.
I’m also fascinated by the way the psyche works on the flotsam and jetsam of the found – and what I suspect is a naturally selected inclination towards aesthetic pleasure in all creatures who make things. I’m thinking of birds shaping their nests towards symmetry, or carpenter bees whose tunnels are infallibly cylindrical. I find this remarkable! And more evidence that we humans are not special or fundamentally different – we’re animals, which I in no way consider a demeaned characterization.
As to your question about originality, I’m not so concerned with how my work is, or is not, ‘different’ from what’s come before. I’m delighted by any through lines that emerge! I have no need to be a pioneer. Which is not to say I don’t respect artists who are. Art is a big tent: there’s room for Schoenberg and Brahms. I love the idea that Zoom’s collaging and pastiche, referents and puns make you think of Rauschenberg.
Miller: Conceptual poetry is about where you found the thing, as opposed to the NY School, i.e. abstractionists, for whom you don’t necessarily need to know where it came from. There was a moment when I wanted to tell people my sources – to get credit! How do you feel about that?
Lewis: My work, like everyone’s, is populated with implications and allusions, many or most of which I might be consciously aware of, but some of which I’m not. When I’m writing, trying to steer my run-away car with as light a touch as possible, I’m often aware, out of the corner of my mind’s eye, of emergent echoes and allusions. Usually I try not to get distracted by them, though, so as not to mess with the flow of composition — the balance between speed and direction, complexity and forward momentum. But also, so as not to flatten the layers of implication. To analogize to an amateurish simplification of quantum theory, what if we could render some of the wealth of possibilities inherent in a subatomic particle’s superposition, without narrowing it, by virtue of our ‘measurement,’ to a single value? In the case of art, where the possibilities are generated by the mysteries of the human psyche, perhaps it’s a more plausible goal.
But I suspect your question refers to the allusions I am aware of. Something like a comedian’s impulse to say, ‘get it?’ Or a magician’s impulse to reveal the workings of their trick. Which can be a byproduct of enthusiasm, or a desire not to play ‘hide the ball.’ Frankly, I’m still not sure what to do with this impulse. Having appreciated T.S. Eliot’s explanatory notes, as well as those of many fine contemporary writers, I did decide to include a few at the end of Zoom. But they are mostly the product of spot-checking, and the urge to decode some of my more obscure iconography. Ultimately, I come out more on the side of the division of labor: the poet offers the poem, the reader reads, and the critic analyzes. I’m not my reader, after all, or my critic. I don’t want to analyze my work, I want to offer it for others to interact with. If I felt the need to explain myself, I should have chosen a different form.
Miller: I’m interested in the preparatory concept in art, and the ambivalence towards the preparatory. When in fact everybody has a preface – there is no art that isn’t prepared, in some way. James Joyce said he didn’t like reading Shaw because you have to read the preface. On the other hand, one of my professors, Norman Schlenoff, told us, ‘you should always read the preface,’ which is to say that no one is so smart that they don’t need to know some preparatory material. Where do you stand between those two statements?
Lewis: I find it ironic that Joyce of all people should have rebelled against preparation – whose work sometimes requires a small library of decoding texts to even approach! But I suspect you’re referring to the contextualizing, back-story type of ‘preface,’ found in ‘project’ books. To be honest, I’m not in love with the idea of art for which it is necessary to tell the reader some defining ‘secret’ of its origin. Here, too, I’m old school! I still love ‘collections’ that are assemblages of shorter, free-standing works. (I like those kinds of museum shows as well, although I can’t remember the last time there was such a one to see). I’m not sure if this kind of entity is extinct, or simply unfashionable, but these days, we seem to be reliant on, or perhaps acclimated to, the use of ‘hooks’ to make readers feel more oriented, more in control. I wish readers didn’t need that – or publishers didn’t think they did.
All of that said, I don’t have anything against projects – I just don’t think they’re the only way to make art. After all, Joyce’s Ulysses is the ultimate project book, whose preface is its title! But Zoom is not, at its core, a project book. There is nothing the reader needs to know about how it was compiled, or why. Of course it has thematic and aesthetic threads stitching it together. But it is still a collection of free standing, self-sufficient, poems. Although the title certainly gestures to certain implications and possibilities, it is not a magic key meant to unlock the book’s ‘secret.’
Miller: Another big issue is content vs form. Zoom is reminding me of a period in the late 70s when artists like Jenny Holtzer were setting the stage for a return to the need for content. Taking content-less poetry, e.g. by Ashbery, and making it say something. Which could involve finding the content inherent in form, or, conversely, how a statement could be poetry. Meanwhile, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry wanted to do the opposite of what the art world was doing, i.e. jettison content, while paradoxically wanting to be seen as part of the art world. Not that pure content is poetry – unless it’s so stark that the starkness itself becomes a form, frames it, and thus becomes poetry. Meanwhile, an artist like John Cage didn’t want his ego to limit what he was doing, so he used procedures to get beyond the ego. Yet some of his art is almost prosaic, and full of storytelling, for example, Indeterminacies. So he was able to put form and content together. How do you put form and content together?
Lewis: I don’t think I could jettison content even if I wanted to. I’m as hopeful for ‘relevance’ as I am critical of the schematic. I have no interest in making poetry that maps onto an argument or belief: in my view, reductionism smothers, rather than animates. Hopefully, what is in the poem can be expressed only as that poem. Although it is certainly interpretable, it cannot be ‘explained’ or ‘translated.’ The trick is how to make poetry that taps both form and content for energy and generative tension. You found a great example, of course, in Jenny Holtzer, whose work, in my eyes, does just that.
Miller: When I was 15 I thought, why not be a poet, since no one could tell if it was good or bad. Later of course I came to appreciate how hard it is to write a good poem. So: why poetry?
Lewis: Well, I envy your 15 year old attitude! My lifelong affinity for poetry was a bit like other ‘forbidden’ loves: delayed, but not defeated, by my internalization of unhelpful values which I eventually shed. Thanks to my mom, who was a voracious reader, I read a great deal of serious literature at a very tender age. I first fell in love with poetry in the form of a short volume by Basho, and became interested in writing poetry as well as reading it. Paradoxically, my mom also raised me to believe that only rare geniuses could or should be artists or writers — and especially poets. It took me quite a while, and many detours, to muster the courage to go back to what I wanted to do. Even when I started to write again, it took some time to get over the fear of poetry as something too exalted to explore. So I wrote short stories, a novella, a novel, and a screenplay, and learned a lot about my aptitudes and limitations — including that I have no mind for plot! Also, that I love compression – and the blank space around shorter forms: all that’s left unsaid. I also love the way non-narrative literature enlists the reader’s active participation — the freedom and responsibility she is given. I’m delighted that my poems might spark reactions and insights I could never foresee.
Miller: Jack Benny once said, “Everything is an accident. It has to be otherwise it would be contrived.” Do you agree? What isn’t an accident? What is the role of intent? How do you imagine your process both differing and connecting with Jack Benny’s procedure?
Lewis: Hats off to Jack Benny, whose insight brings us back to my speeding car. I’m interested in keeping the accidental in the mix, but not giving it carte blanche. Chance can be a most fertile collaborator! To be closed to chance is not only stultifying, it’s foolish, since chance is literally limitless in its resources (consider natural selection). But I realize that by inveighing against control, I’m picking off the low hanging fruit in your question, which is actually about intent! I do often rely upon some form of intent to get off the ground — to defeat the blank page. Even the decision to produce a prose bloc rather than lineated stanzas is an intentional move that structures the energy of what I come up with. But my intentions are always negotiable. For instance, I may or may not end up preserving any of the characteristics that may have gotten the poem off the ground. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what I intend to write: what matters is what gets written – and what I can make of that. To paraphrase another cliché: My poems are what happen while I’m trying to write other poems. I suspect many beginners struggle with finishing what they create because they can’t accept just this. I once read that Michelangelo saw himself as ‘excavating’ the forms embedded in his blocks of marble. This notion of art-making as a process of discovery rather than control is one of my lasting take-aways from his spectacular unfinished series, the Prisoners, which are some of the most powerful and beautiful creations I have ever seen.
In fact, I’ve found that working in series (a strategy I borrowed from the visual arts) is an interesting way to explore the tension between chance and intent, freedom and direction. In my series poems, I can let one iteration of an idea take one possible direction, and then try it again another way and yet another, letting each one take me where it wants to go. Monet is my touchstone here — his haystacks, or the cathedral at Chartres. He may start out interested in the light, how it transforms, even creates, the subject. This gives him his starting position and direction. But in each case he must respond to what he finds at that particular place and time. It’s a dance between action and reaction, the sought and the found.
Miller: I’d like to talk some more about the notion of zoom. To get the vertiginous effect of his zoom shots in Vertigo, Hitchcock used a push-pull technique, pulling the camera back as he zoomed in on what the character was looking at. Are you also using some sort of push-pull in Zoom?
Lewis: Absolutely! Hitchcock’s Vertigo zoom captures what I was trying to get at earlier about ambivalence, and how it reveals multiple perspectives — which can be both destabilizing and vertiginous. The push-pull impulse is even built into this book’s structure. The point of view changes from section to section, ‘zooming in’ as the book progresses, so that the poems in the first section take the 3rd person point of view, the second section take the second person point of view, and the third section take the 1st person point of view. This numerically ‘backwards’ progress can make the book seem to move backwards and forwards at the same time. To mention another example, there’s also a push-pull effect from the way humor and play are combined with intimations of doom.
Miller: Usually, though, zooming in film is a function of selection, like Sergio Leone’s zoom technique, in which he follows an establishing shot with a zoom (e.g., in Duck, You Sucker). In this way zoom is like semiology — Saussure’s notion of the differentiated speech act, the relationship between the stock/langue and the word/parole — in which speech is the act of selecting from the stock, and clever speech selects — i.e., zooms in on — something unexpected. How do you get to that surprising selection? How do you do what you do? Do you use chance procedures?
Lewis: Although I don’t use chance procedures, I do write in layers, and I try to be as free and inclusive as possible, especially in the poem’s early stages. Most often I “hear” a line or even a phrase, and roll along from there, without much of an idea where or how I might do the rolling. Sometimes I rely on associative processes, which might be grounded in sound/rhythm, content/implications, or some intersection of those. This is to generate material, and defeat the blank page — a process which is only undermined by judgment, which I do my best to banish in my early drafts. Once the generative stage plays itself out, I let the new poem cool, so that when I revisit it, I’ll feel freer to play with what I find. Additional rounds of riffing generate additional material, or add layers to what was there. At some point, I switch gears to the editing/shaping/refining modality. It’s a crucial volta from permissive freedom to disciplined judgment, calling for as much brutal self-skepticism as I can muster.
But I love how you invoke Saussure to unpack what it is to “zoom.” I agree that another thing ‘zoom’ can do is select where we are to focus our attention. It’s therefore an apt analogy for the poem, in which the abstract/invisible layer underlies the utterance and its selection, and a surprising selection from that common reservoir generates energy. Which raises the question: what is surprise? Since not all unexpected selection generates surprise — or any other energy (unless you count irritation)! I would argue that surprise derives not from the unexpected alone, but its connection to the recognizable. But I digress!
Miller: Bringing us back to how we began this discussion — and wherever else it might have wandered. Someday we’ll do another interview, and then we’ll get everything in.
Lewis: But there is no everything! Seriously, though, thank you. I look forward to that.
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Susan Lewis (www.susanlewis.net) is the author of ten books and chapbooks, including Zoom, winner of the Washington Prize (The Word Works, 2018), as well as Heisenberg’s Salon and This Visit. Her work has appeared in a great many anthologies and journals, including Agni, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Web Conjunctions, Diode, Interim, New American Writing, The New Orleans Review, Raritan, Seneca Review, Verse, VOLT, and Verse Daily. She lives in New York City and is the founding editor of Posit (www.positjournal.com).