Five Questions with __________ is an experiment with flash interviews. The series on poets continues with poet, translator, anthologist, editor, and educator Jerome Rothenberg. I first read Rothenberg’s celebrated collections rather blindly, long before I knew enough to know about him: first, in a linguistics class, the seminal compilation Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania (UC Press, 1968) and much later on his blog Poems and Poetics, conceived as ‘a free circulation of works (poems and poetics in the present instance) outside of any commercial or academic nexus.’
Samizdat devoted an entire issue to exploring Rothenberg and Pierre Joris‘ poetics after they jointly edited the anthology Poems for the Millennium, Volumes One and Two (1995). Robert Archambeau commented in the editorial note:
In our own time the discourse about poetry, if not poetry itself, seems to have suffered through a taming and truncation of possibilities similar to the one Rothenberg and Joris saw in the years after World War II. I don’t think we’re about to see anyone offering as narrow a version of poetry as Winters offered in his little anthology. But the easy division of poetry into mainstream and otherstream, into Iowa school and Buffalo school, into confession and langpo, has become stifling. The two party version of poetry is about as satisfying and representative as the two party version of politics.
Poets of any language and place should beware the ‘taming and truncation of possibilities’ but arguably none more so than poets writing in English in the United States of America. Rothenberg’s efforts trump the limits of geopolitics without discarding cartographies of power, rooting poetry across/beyond location and historical time (if ‘trans-millennial’ does not exist, can we coin it?).
When the consequence of such a project reverberates as widely as it has, it is doubtful whether stated intention matters. But he has claimed that intention as an intensely personal one, connecting his enthusiasm about the poetry of North American Indians—‘a high poetry and art, which only a colonialist ideology could have blinded us into labeling “primitive” or “savage”’—with his own ancestral lineage ‘in the world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madmen.’
What has most surprised you about the primordial questions that have concerned poetry, or poetry’s primordiality itself?
The surprise came early & only grew stronger during those years when I myself was coming into poetry. What had preceded it was the idea of poetry as a late & culturally exclusive process, confined to the developed world & absent or defective in the rest. The turnabout, as it came to me & others, was that poetry in fact was everywhere & was probably coterminous with our earliest emergence as “knowing humans,” strongest often where we least expected it. For that Technicians of the Sacred in 1968 marked my final turning point & allowed me to declare, right from the start, that “primitive means complex” & maybe more so than so much of what we took for granted as our own.
If maps are drawn by those who happen to be in power what happens to those without it?
Maps mean the legislated or regulated reality that the powerful create & enforce against the powerless. The results for those ground down by them are devastating, excluding them, if left unchallenged, not only from any viable political geography but from any mental or spiritual terrain of their own devising. Against this one can think of many forms of resistance, for myself & others a part of what we mean when we speak, as we often do, of a poetics or an ethnopoetics as a remapping of what was foisted on us as the only true tradition. I don’t know what kind of power comes with that kind of mapping, only to say that mapping as a process is at the heart of what we do . . . or should be.
What are the forgotten or underrated virtues of domesticity?
A question like that has my head reeling, the more I think of it. While it hasn’t often come into the writing, for me at least there has been an incredible domesticity, a friendship & love at the center of my life, & its duration over time has gone beyond the boundaries of what I ever thought was possible. At the end of the pre-face to Technicians of the Sacred—some forty years ago by now—I recognized “the-woman” & “the-child” as central both to my own life & “to the ‘oldest’ cultures that we know.” Where it works (& more often than not it probably doesn’t) there is a precarious stability that comes with it & a kind of love more agape than eros—if we mean to set the two apart. I remember that I shared that concept too with Robert Duncan in his declaration of himself as “householder” & life-long companion in his love for Jess, like mine for Diane. And if my poetry is mostly pointing elsewhere, on its softer side I sometimes open up to that domesticity or think I do—as in this poem in A Book of Concealments (“for Diane’s birthday” 2002):
THE TIMES ARE NEVER RIGHT
Warm days are hanging
over San Diego,
slide into murky
is this but
home & what
but a misnomer?
Pisces has shifted
arms are no
concern to anyone
yet called to our
a strain, a fearsomeness
hard to conceal.
The times are never right.
A skin of air is over
everything. The sun
flows like a liquid,
all the universe we see
has never happened.
There is no truth to time
except for birthdays.
In a city under siege
We live forever
in the instant,
in the house we share.
A groom & bride
smaller than a thumb
& little reckoning
the passage between
death & life.
What was your strangest archive experience?
Maybe not “strange” but the most personal one came in 1988, when I went to the small town in Poland, Ostrow Mazowieck, which my parents had left in 1920. I had gone there for the first time the year before, but this time we were accompanied by a young Polish interpreter, who led us to the Town Hall, where I was looking to find any record I could of the family that my parents had left behind them. Those who were alive at the time of the Second World War had all been killed, as far as we knew, at the death camp in Treblinka, thirty miles away, which we had visited the year before. The woman in charge of birth & death records was suspicious at first—wary I think of people searching there for reparations or lost possessions—but as we talked with her that seemed to fade away. The very large ledgers she brought out for us were written, earlier in Russian & later in Polish, & what we were able to track down in the short time we had was the official record of my grandfather’s death in 1920. I had been named for him, but his name as it appeared in Polish was different from what I knew—Juszek Dawid rather than Yosef or Yosl—& his occupation was listed curiously as student or scholar, with some reference I thought to his absorption in talmudic studies as a follower of the (hasidic) Radzyminer rebbe. I also found his father’s name, Szmul, & his mother’s, Marjem Fejga, which I hadn’t known before. For the rest the town remained a mystery to me. I located the street on which my grandparents had lived & where they had a bakery, but the house itself was gone, as was the Jewish cemetery where they might have been buried, now turned into an outdoor market place & parking lot. So the copy of the death certificate that the Town Hall people made for me was the only sure connection I had to that place & time, but more than I had counted on.
Since Lorca’s real burial place is still a mystery, what real or imaginary location might we imagine instead?
Maybe the mystery is better to keep than the bones or ashes of the burial place, & the imagination, whenever I call on it, keeps flashing back to the still living Lorca, which is what I really want to conjure up. As an actual gravesite I think of him among so many other unnamed victims that I can’t start to count or figure out which bones are his. The French word tombeau, if I remember right, is both a tomb & a kind of poem or musical composition, an elegy, to house the spirit not the body of the dead. (Mallarmé, say, has tombeaux for Poe & Baudelaire, as also for his own dead son.) For myself it’s the Lorca Variations that would be my tombeau for Lorca, his words fusing with mine, as long as I can keep him living. So:
CODA: THE FINAL LORCA VARIATION
The end for Lorca comes
only when we let it helpless
we hear him stir we see him
reach for Saturn
No homage can repay what we have lost
our false beginnings naked crystals
bathed in the imagination
needles that sting us, rubber
that brings us down
a rooster who cries against his shadow.
Where it still smells of almonds
dogs are howling
at the moon eclipses in the water
olive trees for Spain
our homages stuffed into yellow baskets
offered to Lorca’s Spain.
This first appeared at The New Inquiry.
Above: Europe Today, an anthropomorphic map by Verlag von Caesar Schmidt, 1887.
Image from Big Map Blog.
Previously: Five Questions with Elaine Equi
For Jaime A. Salazar
White morning, full of praise.
Before every thing wakes from sleep
I wake first, thinking some
Clumsily I pull back the blinds:
Blare of wondrous light!
It’s all there in cashmere,
Eastman Kodak white,
Enveloping the brushes and stop signs.
This blanket covers them all. Even my
Interior lake is frosted in the blast of its
Whiteness. In the accumulation of life,
In things and places outside the window,
In our little igloo,
Chaos makes a metamorphosis into quietude.
No miraculous sounds: geese, car mufflers, couples walking:
None are heard.
And I stop breathing so that nothing
Sound while you’re asleep, so that
No thing dare break
The oceanic mystery of the antemeridian.
First published in Amerarcana: A Bird & Beckett Review, 2010, p. 68.
Still image from Adam Curtis’ ‘Learning to Hug,’ BBC Blogs.
Pontificating on solutions to poverty (best read in all-caps: SOLUTIONS TO POVERTY) is a familiar topic of the New York Times mélange of millionaire columnists. Perhaps none are as keen on seeing it alleviated through rigorous familial oversight than Nicholas Kristof. Kristof’s ideal unit is the nuclear, middle-to-upper class, two active-duty parental household. It is indirectly projected as a panacea, and families (specifically, poor mothers) that fall short of this utopian arrangement have to answer for it.
If the Fed is endowed with the ambiguous power of enacting national monetary policy, the low-income, low-resources family is tasked with issuing hugs. Lots of them, and over many years of effusive columns. For all his prescriptions downplaying, or more accurately, ignoring the structural and historic legacy of American poverty, the blithe repetition of those prescriptions can still surprise.
‘For Obama’s New Term, Start Here‘ – January 2013
Maybe that’s why some of the most cost-effective antipoverty programs are aimed at the earliest years. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership has a home-visitation program that encourages new parents of at-risk children to amp up the hugging, talking and reading. It ends at age 2, yet randomized trials show that those children are less likely to be arrested as teenagers and the families require much less government assistance. [emphasis not in original]
If that reference seemed uncannily familiar it’s because it was employed exactly a year earlier.
‘A Poverty Solution That Starts With A Hug‘ – January 2012
One successful example of early intervention is home visitation by childcare experts, like those from the Nurse-Family Partnership. This organization sends nurses to visit poor, vulnerable women who are pregnant for the first time. The nurse warns against smoking and alcohol and drug abuse, and later encourages breast-feeding and good nutrition, while coaxing mothers to cuddle their children and read to them. This program continues until the child is 2. [emphasis not in original]
I don’t know much about that particular organization, though I know nurses and they rival saints in sainthood. What is at stake is where the mishap of poverty is affixed, over and over. The argument is not the efficacy of an organization—this particular one serves a constituency of reportedly 85 percent single mothers—in alleviating suffering: committed, skilled people (typically women) do under-recognized, grueling care work daily. As Elliott Prasse-Freeman has written, the issue is that the ‘political context into which this solution is placed actually—as with all Kristof “solutions”—militates against fixing the structural problems.’ Capitalism can piss off. I like the turn of phrase about a robust ‘anti-politics.’ In the case of the lives of the underclass, this is an anti-politics with hidden teeth, mixing the sentimental cue of feminine/maternal labor with a steely managerial approach to cost-cutting measures. (For more on Kristof’s ‘dubious schemes for advancing women’s rights—like arresting sex workers in order to “rescue” them from prostitution, or enthusiastically supporting the creation of “sweatshops” to accommodate sex workers and other women in the global south’ see Anne Elizabeth Moore and Melissa Gira Grant’s ‘Nick Kristof: Half the Sky, All the Credit.’)
Prasse-Freeman has noted Kristof’s explicit interventionism in this excerpt, and here I gloss its barely hidden gendered dimension: ‘Yet the cycle can be broken, and the implication is that the most cost-effective way to address poverty isn’t necessarily housing vouchers or welfare initiatives or prison-building. Rather, it may be early childhood education and parenting programs’ (emphasis not in original). His anti-politics is informed by a dismissal of pervasive structural obstacles, but the valence of the solutions he proposes are never neutral. The disciplinary wasteland of prison is a hardened, masculine world that may or may not reform the grown-up impoverished child caught up in a ‘cycle’ while the healing heart of childhood programs may move children ‘up the escalator of life’ (see the last line in ‘Chipping Away at Poverty—An Exchange‘).
If there is one motif of the ‘big heart/cost-effective solutions’ that has become the Kristof signature it is the hug. Aside from the instances referenced earlier here is a short catalog of hugging as political or economic intervention.
‘Profiting From A Child’s Illiteracy‘ – December 2012
I followed Courtney Trent, 22, one of these early childhood coordinators, as she visited a series of houses. She encourages the mothers (and the fathers, if they’re around) to read to the children, tell stories, talk to them, hug them. If the parents can’t read, then Ms. Trent encourages them to flip the pages on picture books and talk about what they see. [emphasis not in original]
‘Cuddle Your Kid!’ – October 2012
So, could the human version of licking and grooming — hugging and kissing babies, and reading to them — fortify our offspring and even our society as well? [emphasis not in original]
‘The New Haven Experiment‘ – February 2012
The New Haven model still doesn’t go as far as I would like, but it does represent enormous progress. And it’s a glimpse of a world in which ‘school reform’ is an agenda and not just a term that sets off a brawl.
If the American Federation of Teachers continues down this path, I’ll revisit my criticisms of teachers’ unions. Maybe even give them a hug for daring to become part of the solution. [emphasis not in original]
Hugging framed at least two stories about foreign attitudes toward the United States. The tender feelings of unnamed non-Americans in each case are directed to an imagined America or American, nearly always figurable as Kristof himself.
In the case of Iran, the unnamed former military operator doesn’t blame the U.S. for U.S. sanctions, and may even intend to hug the author in a demonstrative appreciation for his Americanness.
‘Hugs From Iran‘ – June 2012
‘We love America!’ gushed a former military commando, now a clothing seller, my first evening in the spiritual center of Mashhad. He was so carried away that I thought he might hug me, and although he acknowledged that his business was suffering greatly from Western sanctions, he said he blamed his own leaders. [emphasis not in original]
In Libya villagers show their profuse admiration for American bombing by embracing a fallen American airman.
‘Hugs From Libyans‘ – March 2011
This may be a first for the Arab world: An American airman who bailed out over Libya was rescued from his hiding place in a sheep pen by villagers who hugged him, served him juice and thanked him effusively for bombing their country. [emphasis not in original]
There is no word-specific cuddling in this column’s content, but it deserves a mention for the call to settle deep ideological differences with hugs.
‘Hug An Evangelical‘ – April 2004
I’ve argued often that gay marriage should be legal and that conservative Christians should show a tad more divine love for homosexuals.
But there’s a corollary. If liberals demand that the Christian right show more tolerance for gays and lesbians, then liberals need to be more respectful of conservative Christians.
While Kristof’s affective procedure seems unique it is part of a wider tradition of American sentiment that reaches at least as far back as Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was the daughter of Lyman Beecher, an influential evangelical minister, and attributed her novel to the power of godly visions. Louis Masur writes, ‘Rich with sentimentality and emotion, as well as with romantic ideals about racial harmony, Uncle Tom’s Cabin reached out to Northern, middle-class, evangelical, female readers. It called for the immediate renunciation of sin, made salvation a reality, the Bible a guide, and spoke to mothers by making home and the unbreakable love of child the benchmark of a Christian life’ (emphasis not in original). Later, Masur appreciatively divulges that Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were awarded the first Harriet Beecher Stowe Prize for Excellence in Writing to Advance Social Justice for their book Half the Sky.
Divergent from the representational, TV hug dissected by Adam Curtis in ‘Learning to Hug‘ Kristof’s hugs are affective substitutes for Stowe’s prayers. In the concluding remarks to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe addresses the reader directly on the question of ending slavery:
But what can an individual do? There is one thing that every individual can do – they can see to it that they feel right. Christian men and women of the North! still further, you have another power; you can pray! Do you believe in prayer? or has it become an indistinct apostolic tradition? You pray for the heathen abroad; pray also for the heathen at home. [emphasis not in original]
Glenn Hendler writes of these lines in his introduction to Public Sentiments: Structures of Feeling in Nineteenth-Century American Literature,
To ‘feel right’ here is to have proper sentiments, an appropriate response to the scenes of suffering and redemption that the reader has witnessed in the course of the novel. Stowe thus tries, as she has throughout the book, to shape the reader’s affective response, to structure the forms of identification that the novel evokes.’
Nick Kristof, too, structures the forms of identification that his work evokes. And the figure with whom the reader is called to identify is Nick Kristof himself. His progress narrative, and one glimpsed in the New York Times widely, is to assume that capitalism either needs improving or does not exist, and to attribute economic inequity to sullied or off-course parenting.
Prayer now passé, Kristof wants you to hug the pain away. His hugging corpus considered together gives the farcical impression that he would administer them as psychotropic drugs if he could do so, but only on persons of a certain class or national origin, remembering Stowe’s call to extend sympathy to the heathen abroad and the heathen at home. (Alternatively he would open the Nicholas D. Kristof Center For Kids Who Can’t Hug Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.) What is most in need of parsing is his promotion of physical hugs on the one hand (the power of elevated oxytocin!) and the figural hug that cushions the technocratic, ultra-condescending domestic/foreign policy adages he recycles. That aspiration is comically muddled yet still chugging along.
This first appeared at The New Inquiry.
Previously: Mr. Kristof and His Others.
‘Their predatory skill fascinates and frightens humans, even though their
survival is threatened by human-related activities.’ [shark]
[From top to bottom: poster for Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975); gallery image for The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (Damien Hirst, 1991); hoaxed image of the flooded streets of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irene (2011); hoaxed image purporting to show a flooded Scientific Center or mall in Kuwait (2012); verified image of a research exercise (Thomas Peschak, 2003); screen grab from Shanghai shark tank bursting open (2012).]
A 33-ton shark tank in a Shanghai mall exploded, injuring up to 16 people and leaving three sharks and dozens of turtles and fish dead. It was a ghastly event that makes for an ecologically apocalyptic moving image. Going beyond the real-life scenario of such a thing happening—and ‘such a thing’ has actually happened—I’ve been grappling with its symbolic power, that is, some way to answer for the fact that I watched it on loop a dozen or more times. (That’s more times than Open Water and Open Water 2: Adrift, but not much more.) The what of the image is clear: what is the how of what it’s doing?
It is a truthful moving image not only because it is real (in contrast to the Spielberg and Hirst works that are framed as fiction or art, or the variety of viral hoaxes) but because it delivers on the dystopia of a false ambient environment. You wanted a giant decorative aquarium? Here’s your giant decorative aquarium. The post-flood images from 2011 and 2012 were digital manipulations, true. But the scenario they created was very different. In those distortions, ‘nature’ invaded urbanized terrains. The city-world’s sudden amphibiousness bestowed a cold creepiness. They may have been startling images before they were debunked but their creators were concerned with a 1:1 causality (chaotic climate futures promise blowback—here’s the blowback).
It’s worth noting that Peschak, the marine biologist and nature photographer who took the 2003 photo duplicated in the viral hoaxes, said he was searching for a single photograph that could narrate his team’s efforts to track white sharks on kayaks. Yet even that photo belies the experiment, since it casts the shark as chasing the humans. Even the attempt to good-faith effort to study sharks masked the disruptions the researchers’ boat engines caused on their behavior. Peschak is more forthcoming about the limitations than most, and takes prudence in noting: ‘White sharks, despite their bad reputation are much more cautious and inquisitive in nature than aggressive and unpredictable. At no time did any shark show any agression towards our little yum yum yellow craft.’
Both humans and sharks are apex predators, but the Shanghai mall disaster footage upends that equalizing categorization in a way nothing else has. The average number of fatalities between 2001 and 2006 from unprovoked shark attacks was 4.3; that means in a period of around six years, there were less than five unprovoked attacks on humans. This one incident alone could never account for the human-related activity that is leading sharks toward extinction (yes, that is really happening). But the scene of three lemon sharks flailing around on the floor of a mall next to a dilapidated Clarins boutique visualizes the depths of human uncare in an unexpected and ugh, excuse me for using this word, but postmodern way. It’s a man-bites-dog story and it’s got me feeling blue.
Theoretical timeline (proceeding from the visualizations above):
(1) the simulated shark as a post-Jaws ideology of fear,
(2) the encased shark as a post-Hirst ideology of art,
(3) the virtual-meme sharks as a climate ideology, and finally,
(4) the cracked shark tank in the mall as a consummation of fear and ideology.
nota bene. I’ve focused on major visualized occurrences, though several volumes could be filled with the dregs of Sea World. Nevertheless, some of the criticisms the Shanghai accident incurred were charged with sentiments that erased the global reach of the problem, e.g. ‘This what you get for buying stuff made in China cause it’s a little cheaper.’
This first appeared at The New Inquiry.
Donnie Andrews and Michael K. Williams in ‘React Quotes’ (The Wire, Season 5, Episode 5).
Episode epigraph: ‘Just ’cause they’re in the street doesn’t mean that they lack opinions.’
Screen grab by author.
Larry Donnell Andrews was in prison serving a murder sentence (for which he turned himself in) when The Wire, featuring the character Omar Little based on his life, first aired. Donnie died after an aortic dissection last week. Few who only knew about his life from its fictional depiction would have guessed that the ‘real’ Omar Little would live twice as long as the fictional one.
Magazine and newspaper profiles flatten the life of their subject, speeding up certain parts and slowing down others in order to fit a manicured narrative. Despite that tendency, Donnie Andrews’ life—in print and onscreen fictionalization—reads like a composite of several different lives, enlarged and textured by seeming extremes. Redemption and mercy play supporting roles.
Donnie’s childhood beginnings in North Carolina formed the background to the first dead body he saw at age four. It was a black man lynched and hanging from a tree. At age nine he and his brother witnessed a man murdered in a laundromat over fifteen cents. He has addressed the question of black vulnerability in the United States with full recognition of historic unjustness, exploitation, and inequity. Of his life in Baltimore he said, ‘You don’t count money, you count time. Everyone out there is a walking dead man. We can’t rely on the police when we need ‘em. They just come to take the bodies away.’ David Simon, whatever one’s opinion of his editorializing of his show, told The Baltimore Sun: ‘On paper, he’s a murderer. We’ve constructed a criminal justice system that doesn’t allow for the idea of redemption, and Donnie puts a lie to that.’
I met Donnie two years ago when he joined the cast of The Wire highlighting Charles Ogletree’s law school course on systemic inequality. He was the least impressed with the show, which he half-soberly, half-playfully called ‘watered down.’ On Omar leaping out from the fifth-story ledge of a building (Donnie jumped from the balcony of the Murphy Homes public housing project in West Baltimore), he told The Independent: ‘That really happened to me, but I had to jump out of the sixth floor. It was either lead poisoning or take my chances, so I took my chances. I did it without thinking. If I’d thought about it, I might have taken the lead poisoning.’
Around the time we met I had been researching fictional criminals in Brazilian cinema, particularly during the military regime when the visualizing of redemptive violence (in distinction to the racialized depictions that accompanied electoral democracy) was a powerful force in film. Rogério Sganzerla’s The Red-Light Bandit (1968) was based on the real-life João Acácio Pereira da Costa who robbed the homes of the rich with a red lantern. Though Sganzerla’s film took great liberties with fictionalizing that life, the bandit code of ‘civilians’ or ‘citizens’ being left unharmed applied as much to fiction as real-life. Pereira da Costa’s larger-than-life biography made for a riotous film (which didn’t show him serving 30 years in prison) but left open the possibility for atonement and redemption despite the choices made under nearly insurmountable odds.
If I can be allowed the indulgence of crossing the boundary of Donnie’s real life similarly, The Wire‘s most illustrative segments on honor codes came across in exchanges between Omar and police detective Bunk Moreland. In the first season of the show (‘One Arrest,’ 1.7), Omar acknowledges there is one.
Bunk Moreland: So, you’re my eyeball witness, huh? [Omar nods] So, why’d you step up on this?
Omar: Bird triflin’, basically. Kill an everyday workin’ man and all. I mean, I do some dirt, too, but I ain’t never put my gun on nobody that wasn’t in the game.
Bunk: A man must have a code.
Omar: Oh, no doubt.
Three seasons later (‘Unto Others,’ 4.7), Omar repeats Bunk’s summation of him: ‘A man gotta have a code.’ As in the image of Michael K. Williams (playing Donnie) sitting with Donnie himself in the still above above, Donnie was always in the presence of many mirrors of himself. (‘Why did I kill a man that looked just like me?’)
Omar Little, an outlying thief who robbed drug dealers, was endowed with a moral complexity seldom seen on television (and The Wire was not just television: it is to this day one of the few series set in a predominantly black city without drawing sensationalized attention to that fact). If Omar was ‘one of TV’s greatest characters’ it was because of Donnie. The show distinguished itself by laying out a palimpsest of failed American institutions but even within that decentralized narrative Omar was singular because the outcome of his life, before, during, and after incarceration was so unusual. He harnessed his dwindling resources to transform his own and others’ lives. This country’s prison-industrial complex is so brutal and efficient at marginalizing black men that his survival and gift of sharing that survival are truly extraordinary. Simon: ‘The prison system in America isn’t structured for rehabilitation. It’s structured for warehousing. I believe in the individual’s capacity to change their own future. Systemically, though, we sure make it hard. It’s a pretty lonesome journey.’
Donnie was married to Fran Boyd, a remarkable person in her own right (and a protagonist in Ed Burns’ The Corner). The New York Times profiled Donnie and Fran’s four-year courtship, mainly comprised of conversation and letters as Donnie was behind bars. They met in person several years later. (Simon called her his only hero: ‘Woody Guthrie and Fran, I guess—and I’m not so sure about Woody.’) Donnie and Fran raised at least four children together, his stepson and three of his Fran Boyd’s nieces and nephews. (It appears to have been quite the year for Boyd, who lost her son DeAndre McCullough (also featured in The Corner) a few months ago to a drug overdose.) In our brief conversation about his life and its televised depiction, Donnie brought Fran up several times. Before he parted he gave me his phone number for a follow-up interview (which I didn’t follow up on—it just seemed at the time that Donnie would live forever). When I asked for his email, he quickly replied, ‘It’s donnell loves fran at [...] dot com.’ Real recognizes real, as he used to say.
Five Questions with __________ is an experiment with flash interviews. The series continues with poet Elaine Equi. At the risk of bordering on superlatives, which this project has taken care to avoid, her renderings of material life are among the most exquisitely witty and awake in contemporary American poetry. She herself has characterized her writing as ‘willfully direct in a minimalist sort of way,’ though she could have said, without a trace of immodesty, that it is a kick in the gut followed by an equally unexpected, wry smile. Her decades-long work submerges itself in a capacious range of topical matter. What genuinely makes one its frequent visitor, however, is the will to adopt a decentered style as a style of its own.
Many have discarded the unit of a stable or cohesive poetic ‘self,’ yet that stance has seldom been followed by a poetics of transformation. Michel Foucault’s self-described imperative in life and work was ‘to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.’ One can’t help but read that M.O. in Equi (this line is oft-quoted but I quote it again: ‘All writing is a form / of transvestism… / Nothing can stop this / endless, transformative / flow of selves / into other, opposite’). Her theses on rearrangement, change, and mutation are highly persuasive, especially as they are guided by a concern greater than the sum of one person’s metamorphosis. In ‘Role Reversal,’ she compares art in the age of Stendahl and Flaubert with art in the age of the hyperreal: ‘Once reality was dumb and brutish— / in need of art for elevation. / But it’s changed— / grown baroque and multifaceted. / Today we no longer take reality for granted. / Now art is the simpleton.’
Of course, with the ubiquity of advertising and market capitalism manifesting human interaction as primarily transactional, there is a particularly modern danger about transformation. Equi’s poetry—baroque and multifaceted—is a sign of heightened possibility, a shield facing that oncoming peril.
Why or for whom does the myth of a ‘muse’ endure?
I’m not sure the myth of the muse does endure. I’ve never been much for courting muses, but if I were in the market for one, I’d want to go old school and have a genuine deity. The problem is for that to work, you need the necessary faith. The Greeks had it. They had intense personal relationships with their gods, so that they didn’t just ask for favors, they actually seemed to channel them. When Sappho calls on Aphrodite, the goddess is quick to respond: “Sappho, who does you wrong?”
The idea of a flesh and blood muse that is the embodiment of some ideal is problematic for me. It sounds more like an obsessive love affair where so much depends upon sublimation. I know Dante had Beatrice and he did okay, Breton had Nadja, Martin Scorsese had Robert De Niro before he switched to Leonardo DiCaprio. I make no judgments, I just think I’d feel more ensnared than inspired under those conditions.
Recently, while walking around the East Village, I saw a young woman with long, blue-black hair, smoking a cigarette. She was wearing a low-cut tee shirt that showed off the word “Muse” tattooed across her collarbones like a necklace. Being a literalist, I took her at her word. It was rather exciting like spotting a rare butterfly, but also perhaps a sad comment on our times when even Muses have to advertise their services. For a moment, I toyed with the idea of introducing myself, but in the end didn’t. Exploring my own idiosyncratic interests, however trivial, seems preferable to creating great art in the name of someone else.
If offered a cosmic opportunity for redress after enslavement, sorrow, and resource deprivation, what would the animals say?
What would animals want? Not money—where would they spend it? And I don’t think they’d forbid hunting, since they themselves enjoy the pleasure of the chase. They might even let us keep our leather boots and fur coats for similar reasons, though some sort of arrangement would have to be made to limit those interests.
My biggest hope if animals had a voice in our affairs can be summed up in two words: gun control. With their constituency firmly behind it, maybe we could finally pass a bill outlawing firearms.
Does the fact that language is a genetic and biological fact for 100% of human beings make writing the hardest of the arts?
No, I think it makes it easier. Since most people have to write for school, their jobs, letters to friends—they’re more sympathetic to the problems writers face and better able to evaluate a literary work.
Music has always seemed infinitely more difficult to me, but that’s probably because no one in my family played an instrument or sang.
When is it more important to seek one’s inner adult than one’s inner child?
My inner adult is petty and childish and my inner child never really learned how to play. They sort of cancel each other out. Besides, I agree with Gertrude Stein that in our own minds we are only one age—neither too young or too old. Anything else, as she puts it, “must be a horrid feeling.”
What is to be done with the misspent drive, lost urgency, or inertia that accompanies revision?
If I’ve exhausted a number of approaches and still am not satisfied with a poem, I throw it away. In general, I like throwing things away. It makes me feel happy and unburdened. If the original idea had any merit, I feel it will make its way back to me in another incarnation—and often it does. Of course, this method wouldn’t be good if I wrote novels or even long essays, but for poems, it’s perfect.
That said, while I’m working on a poem, I’m very good at playing the waiting game. I can spend weeks or even months on a couple of lines. If I don’t know how a poem ends, I don’t continually rewrite it. I just keep rereading what I have, then put it aside and do something else. The method is kind of like the story about the shoemaker and the elves. You lay out the pieces and when you’re not paying attention, they somehow assemble themselves. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it does.
This first appeared at The New Inquiry.
Above: Me and the Spotted Elephant by Maryam Iranpanah (Artanian).
Previously: Five Questions with Michael Davidson