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Rae Armantrout Interview

   

 

Rae Armantrout is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. She received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008.Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s. 

 

Her poetry books include: Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007), which was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times, Versed (Wesleyan, 2009), which received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011).

 

Her poems have been included in anthologies such as American Hybrid (Norton, 2009),  Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (Norton, 1993), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition, (Wesleyan, 2002),The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and  The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008. 

 

 

Amy King is a poet whose most recent poetry book is I Want to Make You Safe (Litmus Press). She works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and is editing a book of interviews with Ron Padgett. King moderates the Poetics List (SUNY-Buffalo/University of Pennsylvania) and the Women’s Poetry Listserv (WOMPO), and teaches English and Creative Writing @ SUNY Nassau Community College. Her website can be found here.

 

   

 

 

AK: When did you begin writing poetry? What was the draw? As they took shape, do the original tenets remain? What spurs your current “daily” poetic impulse?

 

RA: When I was in first grade, my teacher had us make up poems which she typed up and bound into mimeograph booklets. I really enjoyed that. I found one of those booklets at my mother’s house after she died. My poem went something like (I’m working from memory here) “The little fish swim/Around and around/And away.”

 

My mother read poetry to me when I was maybe 4-7. She had an encyclopedia for children called Childcraft that included two volumes of poetry. The rhythms got into me, maybe because I associated them with my mother’s attention and affection. Who knows.

 

Later I used poetry, as I do today, as a way to tease out thoughts and feelings. Not so much to “work through them” as to make them take shape(s). Doing that is pleasurable on many levels. Once thoughts and feelings have been made into the pseudo object of a poem, they tend to give you pleasure instead of pain.

 

My daily poetic impulse is to toss back some of what the world throws at me in a game of hot potato. When something I see or hear puzzles me or bothers me—especially if I don’t know why—I start to pursue it in writing.  

 

AK: What are you reading these days? 

 

RA: Lydia Davis’ translation of Swanns’s Way, Brian Greene’s new book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. I just started Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies. I’m teaching Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead so I’m rereading that.  

 

AK: You’re reading The Hidden Reality… Are you at all intrigued by the possibility of alien life? Do you think aliens use language, and if so, do they write poetry? What would they think of the human enterprise of poetry? Do you think human power dynamics, which you tackle so often in your poems, work outside of the realm of the human as well?

 

RA: The Hidden Reality doesn’t deal with aliens per se. It describes different versions of the multi-verse idea. As I’m sure you’ve heard (or thought), if space/time is actually infinite, there will be an infinite number of “yous”—beings just like you or like you except for one perhaps very significant detail. In an infinite multi-verse there’s a planet just like earth except you are the president of the United States at the moment. Now this, of course, sounds a lot like the way people choose to imagine themselves in past lives more romantic than the one they’re living now. But, nonetheless, it’s a possibility physicists are contemplating. The quantum version is even more mind-boggling. In that scenario, each time a quantum event is measured, say an electron travels right or left, it actually goes both ways causing a kind of split in reality in which there are now two observers, two “yous,” if you will, one of whom witnessed the electron hitting the left hand detector and one of whom witnessed it striking the one on the right. Don’t worry. I’m not going to go on and on about this. If you’re interested, read Brian Greene. I think this fascinates me as a poet because I’m interested in double meaning in a serious way. For instance, in Gift, the appearance of the mushroom both is and is not connected to the reported conversation. I would like to write a poem which is really two different but overlapping poems depending on how you interpret one word. I don’t think I’ve accomplished that, but it would give me a thrill if I did. The poem called “Division” in Money Shot begins “Ought” meaning should//and ought,/”a cipher.” I would like both meanings to remain active throughout what follows. It’s not exactly a “many worlds” result, but it’s on the way. 

 

AK: You have received many major awards—most recently, the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and a Guggenheim—within the past two decades. Do you feel like a “major poet” these days? How do you process your increased reception? 

 

RA: Actually, I didn’t win the National Book Award. I was a finalist in 2009. You’re probably thinking of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Anyway, certainly more people have heard my name and have a passing familiarity with my work now. A few of them become deeply engaged, at least I hope so. But the downside is that, if people read you just because you won an award, there will also be some who are dissatisfied and even pissed off by what they find. So you have to be ready for that. In order to keep yourself from getting a big head, you can always remember that literary reputation is a house of cards. We don’t know how the future will judge us— or if the people of the future will think of us at all.  

 

AK: Have you ever felt your work was overlooked in any way? Do you think you have ever been pigeonholed, whether positively or negatively, as a “woman poet?” 

 

RA: When I was really young, of course, sexism was blatant and pervasive. My high school English teacher actually told me, “Women can’t write poetry.” I don’t know what he thought Emily Dickinson was. Later, in the late 1970’s, I was aware that women were expected to write about certain areas of experience—the body, for instance, and domestic relations. The odd thing is that this expectation came from both sexist men and feminist women. I mean I was very much a feminist myself— but I didn’t think that there were certain topics women should write about. Why buy into limitations?

 

Now I notice that male critics and reviewers write about my work much more often than women critics do. Probably that is just because there are more male critics. But it bothers me. So I was very pleased to see Vanessa Place’s recent review of Money Shot, on The Constant Critic.   

 

AK: Place notes that in Money Shot, desire is considered “an economy.” Can you speak a bit about the relationship between the erotic and the economic in that book?

 

RA: Well, in general, as everyone knows, the economy works because of the uneven distribution of real or imagined lack and real or imagined value. As economies “develop,” paradoxically, the needs and the values seem to become more and more imaginary. The erotic likewise arises from real or imagined differences to which more or less imaginary value is ascribed. I mean life is an economy. There was no need and no value until the first organism somehow incredibly “discovered” that there was. So, I don’t have any special knowledge about economy, obviously, but, I got interested in the language of what people call the great recession. I mean it seems to me that you could see life itself as a sort of Ponzi scheme or credit default swap. I’ve always been interested in this. Look at my poem “Natural History” in Veil.  So, yeah, some of the poems in Money Shot deal explicitly with exchanges and the erotic charge associated with them. You could look at the poems “Soft Money,” “The Gift, “Fuel, and “Money Talks” as examples. “Soft Money” is probably the most explicit. It starts out by categorizing various sexual objects in terms of their relation to need:

 

They’re sexy

because they’re needy

which degrades them.

 

They’re sexy because

they don’t need you.

 

etc.

 

What’s going on in “The Gift” may be more complicated. It deals with the erotics of substitution and the seemingly magic exchange of one thing for another:

 

You confuse

the image of a fungus

 

with the image of a dick

in my poem

 

(understandably)

 

and three days later

a strange toadstool

 

(white shaft, black cap,

five inches tall)

 

appears

between the flagstones

in our path.

 

etc.

 

That, by the way, is an account of actual events.

 

AK: It’s interesting you note this poem is “an account of actual events,” which suggests, to me, a value placed on the poem akin to authenticity or validity, even as your selection of these details, presented in and by the poem, is also a real event.  And yet, the poem pivots on a coincidence that may or may not be relational (i.e. the conflation of a mushroom as dick and then the literal appearance of a mushroom) just as you’re writing it may not solely be borne from you’re witnessing these events. That’s a long way around to ask how memory functions in your work versus inclusion of the imagined—can you speak a little about memory and the imagination in your poetry?  How are they, at times, conflated and then again separated? Is this separation problematic?  Do you assign values to veracity and imagination? 

 

RA: That’s a good question. For me, gathering material for poetry from whatever I happen to perceive over the course of a few days is a kind of “chance operation” because, of course, so much “happens” that I could have perceived an entirely different set of things. Partly, of course, I perceive what I’m attuned to or expecting (we all do that). But what I notice also depends on any number of accidents of time and place. From there I act out or maybe dramatize what neurologists call “the binding problem.” How does the mind turn a swirl of confused stimuli: shape, color, movement, etc. into an “object” or, more problematic still, an “event?” How is a whole formed by possibly contrasting bits? That’s a challenge that we all “master.” It becomes unconscious. But my poems often bring the “binding problem” back into consciousness. How might the mind connect these things or observations that neighbor one another in time or space? “The Gift” begins with me accusing someone of misreading and then reports an extraneous (but how should we define that?) event which appears to illustrate the terms of the misunderstanding. I’m having some fun with coincidence there.  (Another way to look at it is that nature is having some fun with me.)        

 

AK: I’m not great at articulating theory, but I wonder if you think poetry is a way to point at the supernatural, the ineffable—I.e., that which cannot be ultimately revealed, but can be alluded to? Is everything permissible in poetry?

 

RA: This question is full of minefields. Everything is permissible, but anything can go wrong at any time. You can’t make rules for poetry. As soon as you do, someone finds an excellent way to break them. (So maybe that means we should make rules). As for the first part of your question, I don’t see a reason to conflate the ineffable with the supernatural. The ineffable is what can’t be expressed in words. And words always leave something unsaid. However lovely they are, they’re always somehow wrong. They’re finite and reality probably isn’t. So I think the ineffable pervades experience. And, yes, I do think of poetry as pointing to that.   On the other hand, I don’t see much use for the concept “supernatural.” Nature itself is strange and mighty and mighty strange and still, despite our accomplishments, largely beyond our understanding. If we’re going to call what we don’t understand “supernatural,” then we’ll have to start by calling the universe supernatural—and I don’t think that gets us anywhere.

 

AK: (How) do your poems surprise you? What are some of the starting points for your poems—are your “triggers” language-based, aural, visual? From what position do your poems approach reality—how do they speak to it, modulate it, etc?

 

RA:  My poems are generally triggered by something in my environment.  I keep a notebook and write down things that interest me or puzzle me.  The material could come from anywhere. I might hear a song on the radio or see a billboard or overhear a remark or have a conversation with someone or read a book on physics, etc   Sometimes, as I have my coffee in the morning, I remember something that caught my attention the day before and ask myself (by writing) why I’m still thinking about that? Maybe something strikes me, makes me feel good or bad or both, and I don’t really know why. So the poem often begins as, What is it about X?  I try to find out by writing the poem. So, yes, my poems almost always surprise me. If I understood what I had seen or felt (etc. ) from the start, I wouldn’t have been motivated to write. The poems are usually written over several days or even a couple of weeks. During that time, once I’ve started a poem, I may have a vague sense of what kind of material needs to come into it, but I don’t know precisely what it will be until I run across it. So I just try to stay alert. I take a predatory stance toward reality. I scan the undergrowth and try to stay patient.  When I see what I need, I pounce. How’s that for a wacky metaphor? I don’t think any of us really know what we’re going to say next, not unless we have a teleprompter.

 

“Soft Money” is a poem that I wrote quite rapidly, maybe even in one sitting. That’s unusual for me. The trigger was an old Duran Duran song called “Rio Dancer.” It made me start thinking about the various forms of sexual attraction.  But when I started writing “Soft Money” I had no idea that I would end up with Kant’s “thing-in-itself” and “thing-for you” (I think it was actually the “thing-for-us” in Kant)—let alone “”Miss Thing. If momentum doesn’t carry a poem beyond its first impulse, it probably isn’t gong to be very interesting.

 

AK: What excites you in contemporary poetry? What do you expect we’ll be reading in ten years?

 

RA: There’s a lively variety in contemporary poetry. There are a lot of good new magazines around like Lana Turner and 1913. I won’t even try to give an exhaustive list of the younger poets who interest me. If I did that, I’d be leaving

a lot of great people out either through laziness or ignorance. But I’ll give you a teaser. Ben Lerner, Cathy Wagner, Graham Foust, and Monica Youn are four poets under 40 (I think) whom I admire.

 

AK: Can you give us a clue to what’s on your writing horizon? Are you writing a new book, concept intact? What can we look forward to from Rae Armantrout next?

 

RA: Yes, actually I have a new poetry manuscript called Just Saying which is probably about two-thirds done. I hope to finish it by the end of this year. It’s hard to say what it’s “about.” It grows partly out of my ongoing engagement with science writing and partly out of the fact that I’ve been doing so much traveling, so much waiting in airports and a variety of strange hotels. There’s a poem in it called “Bardos.” I almost called it Bardos in honor of those strange waiting areas. But I decided to go with Just Saying (which is the title of another poem in the ms.) instead because the book also seems to acknowledge the excessiveness or outlandishness of poetry, of being a poet, in this age.   We’ll have to see how those various threads come together.

 

 

 

copyright © Rae Armantrout & Amy King