Barbara Ras and Matthew Dickman discuss ‘thingness’, Neanderthal poetry and the influence of ghosts and religion on their work.
I was wondering about the things in the world, all the zillion objects and products and all. When they show up in a poem, Breyten Breytenbach calls it ‘thingness’. There is so much thingness in your poems. I wonder if you think about putting things in your poems or if they just show up. What’s your relationship to thingness?
‘Thingness’ as a concept doesn’t engage me on its own, though it does send me to explore Breyten Breytenbach’s poetry, which I don’t know. I’m more familiar with his prose writings. As for the idea of thingness, many things, perhaps too many (or so I worry about in the earlier poems), do appear in my poems, but their presence is a by-product of other preoccupations and my perpetual tendency towards restlessness.
I wonder how much Breytenbach supports William Carlos Williams’s early exhortation: ‘no ideas but in things’. Though that battle cry to lead American poetry into plain speech and away from European influence and intellectual abstraction had its role in furthering modernism, I think we’ve metabolized that Kool-Aid and can move on. Isn’t it possible, even desirable, to find ideas in other places? Emotions, dreams, surrealistic pillows, personification, snatches of conversation, fragments of songs, plangent declarations (like, ironically, ‘no idea but in things’ itself), as well as praise, laments, prophesies, heresies, questions and jokes, just to throw out some examples.
I feel an affinity with your work, so dashing, so emotionally charged in every register, so inventive. It’s the kind of poetry that I go to for sustenance and pleasure. I wonder then, why you began with the idea of ‘thingness’, which doesn’t seem to me to characterize your work that much, like these lines of yours from ‘Gas Station’ in Mayakovsky’s Revolver:
The subterranean elegance of shadows
and the moon like the inside of a jawbreaker
after all the color has been licked off,
all that sweet dye and sugar,
layer by layer
until only the soul of the thing is left, the hard center
that will choke you to death
if you’re not careful.
Yes! I like what you say about ‘thingness’ being a by-product. It certainly is for me. I remember being on a panel once at a conference for nature poetry (I don’t know how I got invited!) and an audience member asked why I had so many pop culture references in my work. The question felt strange to me because none of the ‘things’, none of the ‘objects’ that show up in a poem I write are a tool of reference. They happen organically. If a can of Pepsi shows up it’s because I was thinking about a can of Pepsi. I asked the audience member why so many ‘nature poets’ reference bears and trees. My response wasn’t meant to be snarky, only to show that when I think of nature I think of the world we have made as humans.
In that poem you quoted the moon has an inner life, a mystery, and for me at that moment the mystery was a piece of candy. Just trying to talk about the moon I can only get close to it by climbing a ladder of ‘emotional thingness’, leaps through other objects to get to that big shining rock.
I brought up the idea about things because I remember it was your poems that made me think ‘Oh wait! Not every poem needs to be about something sacred, some Grecian urn, but that the sacred can be found in the secular. Like in your poem ‘You Can’t Have It All’:
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
Curry and sunlight! They seem like the same thing to me emotionally.
Here in Portland, Oregon it’s getting cold and the trees are shaking off the last of their rubbish. So! I have been thinking about ghosts. I wonder if you think about ghosts as well. If ghosts are part of your own mystery as a person. And we could just say ‘absence’ if you prefer! Is there a force of ‘absence’ in your work? Or am I reading my own desires too hard, like a child, when I read your poems?
I think you must inhabit the same universe as Rilke, who in the ‘Ninth Elegy’ (Spender’s translation) writes:
Are we, perhaps, here just for saying: House
Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Olive tree, Window, –
possibly: Pillar, Tower? . . . but for saying, remember,
Oh, for such saying as never the things themselves
hoped so intensely to be.
You raised that question, and it’s hard to let it go. How do we recognize things from stuff like light and shadows? Is colour a thing? I’ve been stewing about it. Slippery thing soup, sliding around in its bowl.
It’s so generous of you to quote those lines from ‘You Can’t Have It All’ and I’m immensely gratified they arrived at a useful time in your poet’s life. I think poets hold onto the singular moment or experience when they first realized they have permission, something that said okay, time to emerge from the dissolve of the cocoon into startling new air. My experience happened at City Lights in San Francisco. I had driven down from Eugene, Oregon, where I was getting an MFA, and I was buying armloads of books. At the checkout a man asked me if I was buying 1933, by Philip Levine. Because I wasn’t, he bought it for me, insisting that I had to have it. As it happened, that book, more than anything else I’d picked up, changed my life. Levine gave me permission to acknowledge my own working class roots, to admit my immigrant grandparents, to open wide the door and draw from experience that I had, in fact, felt irrelevant to poetry. Had I felt ashamed of my unsophisticated background? Probably. Had I been clueless to the fact that I could access family material without cringing or, even if cringing, write about it? Absolutely. I wish to hell I knew the name of the guy who bought me the book. I’d like to thank him.
So, you ask, ghosts. Yes, ghosts. Good God, ghosts. Fifty years later, the ghost of my first love still has a hold on me. In my conscious hours, he’s a shadow. But in dreams, he comes back with a preposterous amount of power. Thank God the broken heart narrative has been alternating with more welcome erotic content, which is what it was all about to begin with – first love, first lust.
Oddly, places come next in my hierarchy of haunting. The house I grew up in possesses me more than I possess the memory of it. A widow’s walk crowned the attic. The front hall had a skylight in the shape of an inverted cone – panes of red and blue glass cast projections on the walls that moved with the sun. At the back of my grandmother’s closet was a door that led to the inside of a closet on the opposite side of the house, rented out to strangers, usually single women on the far side of eccentric.
I have the ghost of a landscape on Buzzards Bay, where I spent summers with my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother, with the men off to themselves as if invisible to the main events. The tiny lot contained a ramshackle bunch of tiny buildings built from scrap lumber, reclaimed nails, as well as a red-and-white trailer that unbeknownst to me had been contested by the neighbours.
I confess I am also enslaved by ghosts of the dead. My only sibling, my brother, Mike, who died too early and too fast, three years ago, as if it were yesterday. No time existed for me when he wasn’t there, my brother only eighteen months older, we were so close, wearing footy pajamas together. Also, my mother, who in her own inexplicably strange way got me and loved me best, and died minutes before I arrived at her bedside, still warm, a pulse still thrumming in her veins.
All these – not absence but presence. They inhabit my dream life, my emotional core, with such ferocity that I often feel unhinged. And they want to inhabit my poems, often with such unshakable, obsessive force, that I feel pulled under, drowning in the unconscious.
Thank God that we have Tony Hoagland who writes that we should be grateful for our obsessions. Is it possible to be grateful for ghosts? What do you think? I would love to own some gratitude.
Your poems speak about the loss of your older brother in a desperately real way. It seems you are no stranger to these callings from the departed, those gone.
And yet your work seems to see-saw between grief and hijinks.
Do you feel more comfortable with one than the other? I wonder, too, what part of your writing is informed by your religious background. I ask because being raised Catholic has affected me to a degree that’s disproportionate with how much I rationally acknowledge its power. Do you think our religious roots dig so deep they become ghosts we can’t shake off?
It’s cold and windy outside. I’m drinking coffee and listening to a DJ make music out of wires. It’s beautiful. I wish you were here! How nice it would be to see your face instead of pushing these buttons!
I think grief is of the highest order of hijinks! And like love it is in everything . . . even this paper coffee cup I’m staring at. I do love what Tony says about obsessions. And I am not always sure why some of us pretend not to have them in our work or work hard to avoid them. Maybe it’s a kind of shame or intellectual anxiety, that if one is obsessed with something then they may not be very smart. But for me obsession is my only intelligence or at least one of the few I have. And yeah, I think we should absolutely be grateful for ghosts. Grateful for what they are and that they are a part of our lives. If one is grateful for the green grass how can they not be grateful for the bones beneath it? I should say here that I AM NOT grateful to the ghosts for being able to write about them. I would erase every poem I have ever written and easily trade in any poem I might read just to get one hour with my dead brother. No one should ever feel lucky about grief or ghosts as a subject to write about . . . but that they are part of our lives! That is something to be grateful for.
I have been to a bunch of funerals and a bunch of weddings and in my experience some hijinks is always happening at a funeral and some grief is always throwing rice at the wedding. They are not that different, those things.
And so I believe that anything, any obsession or fly-by-night moment in life, can be in a poem though I don’t think they always have to be.
Religion! We should be drinking wine!
My personhood is in a great part defined by religion – Catholic school and an Episcopalian home life – and so my poems are too. I got to learn important things at Catholic school, I learned about shame and I learned about magic. That is I learned that my body was dangerous but would eventually live on a cloud. I’m being maybe obnoxious here. I enjoyed a lot of the ritual of Communion and Mass. I didn’t grow up with a father so I liked priests a great deal. When I go to a church I feel pretty good. I like how they smell. But religion infuriates me. I don’t think human beings deserve to have it. If you handed a child a pocketknife and told him to go carve pretty things but instead he went around stabbing other kids you would take that knife away.
But other good things that come out of my experience growing up, things that seem healthy, are ideas about transformation, forgiveness, empathy, wonder, metaphor, things like that, but you have to swim through a bunch of blood to get those things and you can get them from other places so . . .
What do you think?
Where does your history with religion show up in your work?
To answer your last question first, religion for me is a source of imagery, mystery, beauty, guilt and conflict, so that mash-up gives it a centrifugal force that’s useful in poems. Things I loved – the holy water, Latin and smoke, the bells, the stained glass windows, the spectacle, the ritual, the purple hoods over the saints and crosses during Lent. I went to an exquisitely monumental granite church (whose architect also designed St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York) until I was ‘confirmed’. Then my parents stopped going on the assumption that I was an adult in the church and on my own. I dropped out, soon enough, because even at thirteen, I was suspicious of the hypocrisy. The only time I’ve been slapped in the face was by a nun.
Even now, however, when I go into cathedrals I cry. It’s inexplicable. I light candles and cry. There is power in those spaces, still.
That you find hijinks in funerals makes sense. I don’t know if I find hijinks in grief. It’s been to me as pure as a feeling can get. But as you say, gratitude enters in – for the green grass and the bones beneath it. How fitting and just.
It would be sweet to sit across from you in the cafe and talk in person. Thanks for your invitation. Tapping on the keys, followed by an indeterminate delay, makes our conversation a little bit lost in some fourth space-time dimension. Which takes us back to the idea of words as things, and how unreliable they are. Although as I sit here next to a farting dog with my foot in a moon boot on account of a broken metatarsal (I love that word!), I don’t know what’s reliable.
On the subject of ghosts, on a door in my study I have the Emily Dickinson quote I cut out from a poster for poetry month a few years ago: ‘Nature is a Haunted House – but Art – a House that tries to be haunted.’ Poetry, it seems to me, invites ghosts into its lines, or put another way, a spirit, an entity that’s separate from the poet. Which brings to mind Czeslaw Milosz’s poem ‘Ars Poetica?’ (translated by the poet and Lillian Vallee) and these lines:
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
That’s why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
I wanted to reference this poem (even if it reduces its complexity to quote only a fragment) to lead into another issue, namely, the question of the source of poetry: how much of it is dictated by some external agent and how much is under the control of the poet? What, if anything, enthralls you when you write?
I love the question of the source of poetry.
I like thinking about the childhood of things, the Genesis story to put it in the words of our parents, and the wondering where things come from.
Didn’t Jack Spicer believe aliens from outer space were putting poems into his head? I sometimes feel like that.
That is to say years ago when I wrote a poem it felt very structured and so it felt safe. I would hear about something or read something, some story about a plant or a person, and then write a poem about it. Or something would happen in my life and I would write about that. I would walk around all day thinking about the poem and lines that could be in the poem and once it felt like it had a structure, a body, sometimes even a last line, I would sit down and write it. By then the world would be organized enough to make something out of it. And though I think art can be made in millions of ways this practice I had, the safe place, eventually felt convoluted, it felt performed in some way. And then in my mid-twenties I went through a period of about eight months where I didn’t write poems at all and thought that I might never write any again. Eventually I did. But it was a wholly new experience. I remember sitting down and feeling a lot, feeling like I was going to cry or laugh until I threw up, and I began to write. I sat down without an idea, without a clear thought about WHAT I was going to say but I liked what came out. The poem felt more like me, more like I was allowing my inner life to get on the page. I had no power, no real power or control, and I just wrote. The poem was a kind of free-associative narrative about dancing with someone. But it wasn’t just the dance, the poem went all over the place. And so I have written that way ever since. For the last fifteen years.
For me writing a poem is dictated by feeling like I have to make something and engaging in the vague emotional world, some object, some thing that moves me or becomes a bridge to something else, and allowing whatever comes a kind of freedom.
It can be a little unnerving because you don’t know what you are writing often until it’s over.
Maybe a good example can come from my last book. There’s a poem called ‘Coffee’. That poem is an elegy to my older brother but didn’t begin that way. I was feeling things and wanted to write and I was drinking coffee and thinking ‘I really love coffee’ and so started writing about it, which reminded me of smelling coffee being roasted near the hospital where my brother was an inpatient in the psych ward a few times and how that scared me but also how I missed having coffee with him, and on and on. If this line of thought was already in my head, if I had some control over the ‘story’ then it would have been a bad poem, I think. Bad because it was already figured out and didn’t need me, yet I forced my way in anyway. I don’t want that kind of experience when making a poem.
What I want is to give myself up as much as possible to the mystery of making something. In my case it’s a poem.
That giving over enthralls me. I like to control when I brush my teeth and what I eat for dinner . . . I never want to control my experience as an artist.
And you?! Tell me, my friend, what enthralls you?
And why do you think poetry is important?
I wish I could say that I wrote with the combination of freedom and surrender that you describe as your poetic process. Do you really write as if you were taking dictation? Hmm. I confess I’m more prone to spending hours ‘stitching and unstitching’ lines, as Yeats had it in ‘Adam’s Curse’. Though I do believe that mystery takes hold in the making of a poem at some point, and the maker is a receptacle, or the agent of the poem’s desires. At least in the best of circumstances.
Doesn’t every poet live for that moment when the poem begins to write itself? For that to happen, I don’t think one needs to stand in a field and wait to be struck by lightning. It helps, however, to cultivate what Grace Paley called ‘a spirit of indolence’ to write poems. A place where it’s just the mind and the page, the heart and the pen, and a state that can shut down the endless din of demands going on in more ordinary states of consciousness. Poems germinate in climates of openness and attention, and though with luck and concentration that can be achieved anywhere, I’d venture that each of us has a special set of conditions that work best. Mine are an empty house and quiet.
Yes, a lot of the best poems may be gifts of inspiration, but I also believe time and accretion, hard work, can make fine poems in the way an oyster makes a pearl. A lot of my work has been worried into being, layer by layer, over weeks or months until it gets as close as I can reach to Yeats’s ‘a moment’s thought’.
That said I’m still enthralled to the spirit that provokes poetry, call it inspiration, call it duende. Given my proclivity for lamentation and my irrational impulse, not to mention a hunger for passion in poetry, I’d probably favor duende. I’ve lived a lot of my life inside Spanish (time living and travelling in Latin America) and duende resonates strongly for me as something that calls upon the ‘remotest mansions in the blood,’, as García Lorca put it. It’s also, ultimately, mysterious.
Now I’m taking a deep breath. Do you really expect me to answer why I think poetry is important? OK, here goes. Poetry, like all creativity, is an antidote to despair. Even the darkest poems are beautiful. For me, poetry is the only way to express what seems to me to be the essential quest: searching in the dark for answers to questions that are unanswerable.
Please respond to any of these ramblings, and please, also, give me some reading recommendations. I’m always interested in discovering new work, whether poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. Better yet – all three!
I love your answer to what makes poetry important! Yes an antidote to despair. For my part I think I’m in your camp. That is, if we were camped with a fire and trees and the dark night around us! My belief (right now at this very moment) is that every poem is at its core a love poem purely because of its act of being written, that the act of writing is a fight against despair and anger even if we feel these emotions while writing. Poetry is important the way any creative human act is important: it is always an act against killing, against death. And it’s an act of self-realization. I believe with no academic grounding for this belief that the first poem was spoken by a Neanderthal beating a rock against the floor of a cave over and over, making an incantation: I am here, I am here, I am here. Or something like that!
A book of poems I tell anyone who will listen to read is Sarah Fox’s book The First Flag which was published by Coffee House Press in 2013. It’s a magical book. Let’s see, what else is hanging around nearby . . .
Oh! Juan Pablo Villalobos’ wildly incredible and dark little novel Down the Rabbit Hole, a book wonderfully strange, and exciting poems by Maged Zaher called If Reality Doesn’t Work Out, Joshua Shenk’s new non-fiction triumph called Powers of Two. I just finished a ghosty short novel called Antwerp by Bolaño, oh and have you ever read The Fever by Wallace Shawn? It’s one of my favorite plays! And I’m carrying around Noelle Kocot’s Soul in Space along with Comradely Greetings, the prison letters of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Žižek, all of which makes me sound way more cosmopolitan than I am!
And what are you reading?
And what movies have been important to you?
I can name The Goonies, Dead Poets Society, The Impostors and Rope as some important ones for me.
This is a short note I know! But I’m excited to hear back from you.
I like the idea of being camped out with a fire and the dark night around us. And the Neanderthals hammering. Maybe some poems would join us.
I love this Gary Snyder poem about the way of poetry is to find it at the edge of the known and the unknown.
How Poetry Comes to Me
It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light
It would be fun to be with you out there surrounded (one hopes!) by poems waiting for us to meet them. Let’s start making a shopping list of what we’d cook and drink!
Your book list provides a terrific journey into the unknown. I haven’t read any of your recommendations, and I will instantly add them to my must read list. I’m excited that you mentioned Sarah Fox. I met her decades ago, read her first book, but have lost track of her. What a delight that you recommended her work so emphatically.
My list will be less what’s on my nightstand now than a review of the top hits of the recent past. I’ve been reading a lot of terrific novels. The best include: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis; A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra; and Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle, three magnificently dark books. I’d also recommend Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, and The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad. In non-fiction, I am continuously reading a lot of terrific books that end up being published by Trinity University Press (where I’m the director) so it would be unseemly to name those in this context. I’ve been behind on poetry. It takes so much presence of mind that I haven’t had in surplus in the past months, convalescing from two injuries back to back. That said, I’ve been affected by Gerald Stern’s latest collection, Divine Nothingness; poems by the dazzling Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, Ex Voto (translated by Ellen Doré Watson); Sheila Black’s collection Wen Kroy (New York in a mirror); Jane Mead’s Money Money Money Water Water Water; Necessities, by Christopher Merrill, and the chapbook Patriot, by Laurie Saurborn Young, with her longer book that contains much of the now sold-out chapbook due soon.
Movies. You shouldn’t have asked me about movies. I could list more movies than you (or anyone) could bear to hear about. I have to preface my recommendations by saying that I’ll watch an outrageous range of stuff – from fantasy and romantic fluff to the opposite – serious, searing foreign films. I have to say it’s the latter that sticks with me, drilling down into permanent memory. Notable among these are Indochine, Latcho Drom, Daughter of Keltoum, Travellers and Magicians, White Meadows, A Time for Drunken Horses and these powerful, original explorations of the treatment of Jews during the years of World War II and later – Twin Sisters, Aftermath (drawing from the events in Jedwabne, Poland, where Poles turned against their Jewish neighbors in a massacre that killed hundreds) and Remembrance.
In a less trauma-ridden zone, I loved Night Train to Lisbon.
I think, dear Matthew, that we’ve run out of time. If we hadn’t, I’d have to ask you next about music. Maybe that’s a topic we can exchange in our future emails. Poetry and music. It’s an inexhaustible subject.