Dorothea Lasky and Adam Fitzgerald talk about the Metaphysical I, thigh-burning poetry and the timeless appeal of popcorn.
Adam Fitzgerald: How do we always begin?
DL: Let me start. Tell me about your poem in the current issue of Granta and where it originated?
AF: I clubbed a nun in a subway and took the poem from her. No, ‘How to Get Over Someone You Love’ originated for me on a fall morning last year. I woke from a dream and felt compelled – no, mandated – to write a poem. It was one of those dreams where someone you’ve loved is only eager to take advantage of the amorphous cartoon logic of dreams. I was driving in a car through toll lanes in a blizzard and X kept maintaining this peripheral elusiveness in many failed or frustrated vignettes of reunion and parting. Like John Cassavetes, sort of, with the most important dialogue half heard and off-screen, ten thousand other dumb and wonderful things going on simultaneously. Tell me about your poem in Granta.
DL: I love all this and there is so much to say here. Like I want to ask you: what’s your favourite Cassavetes film? But maybe I’ll ask that another time. What I want to ask is a question I struggle with – is there always an X in a poem? I mean, it doesn’t have to be this kind of elusive X. It doesn’t have to be a present X. But is there always an X and a Y and then where is the Z? I came to the conclusion almost ten years ago that it was silly to disregard the X and so many poems do. But if a poem always concerns the X, is that bad, too? What other options do we have as poets? (And after you answer this, then I will address my poem question.) (Also, I’m eating popcorn to simulate Home School.)
AF: I have more to tell you than March does the maples, Aries! Ah, popcorn. You and Robert Polito are frigging obsessed. I think popcorn is having a comeback even as movie theatres vanish. Or maybe movie theatres are having a comeback. But I can’t imagine you at a big Cineplex, though if you were, I bet you’d happily throw down for an oil-mogul’s-size bucket of sweet kernel. OK! So: 1/ my favourite Cassavetes film is without a doubt The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The film is many things, but the relevant part to you, to us now, is its brilliant fuck-you to conventional film technique. Sometimes you’re really watching a terribly edited, disconnected, amateurish thing that refuses pleasures in competency, mainline/mainstream goodness. Pace Bernadette Mayer: ‘The idea of perfection in a poem is pretty stupid.’ This is something you often warn: forsake not the vital forces for mere cosmetic lawn, so to speak. Let the poem’s unruly hair grow! 2/ Yes, I think there are many X’s in a poem, bad pun intended. But I don’t know if a poem must always concern at least one such ghost. Or maybe we, the human-we, write our poems and X is the dangling carrot, while the poet-we, smarter, insinuative, sublating all over the place, gets the tough job down thanks to X-distraction.
holds it almost as dogma that the poet’s best as a receiver, our memories and aesthetics just part of the inescapable furniture of the room that the poem tries to speak through and transcend. Poet-as-radio. What’s interesting to me, though: he deems the unconscious or repressed as equally irrelevant to the signal’s importance; automatic writing isn’t about liberation or excavated self-insight. The form or, rather, the shaping powers of language, that’s what’s magical, yet if I’m hearing him right, that’s also what’s coming from elsewhere. I wonder how that gels with you and your sense of the Metaphysical Eye? After all, you write lectures too now! Preach, speak, clarify!
DL: OK, Capricorn, first, in case you were wondering, my favourite Cassavetes film is Opening Night. And I guess it makes sense too why I would love that. But you are right that he does appreciate things that aren’t meant to be perfect, as if that could be. I love a ragged beauty and I always will. But I think I might love ragged emotions in art, versus just ragged edges. I wonder if Mayer’s work is considered to be a ragged beauty. I don’t think it is, but some might think it is, I know. I don’t think you do. Or maybe you do. Do you? Also, yes, Robert Polito and I love popcorn, and this was evidenced at Home School this summer. I think it is because we are old-timey and respect what must be preserved. I know that Lucie Brock-Broido loves popcorn, too, and maybe other poets do, too? But for me, popcorn is and is not about watching movies, especially in a big theatre. And I don’t want big theatres to die more than I care whether books become digital or not. When I was in high school, I went to the movies almost every Friday late night with my adorable boyfriend and I don’t think I did eat popcorn. I think I ate Twizzlers and used them as Diet Coke straws. Also, I love that Spicer lecture and believe it does have some root in what I think of as the Metaphysical I (I love that you wrote Eye, ‘cause of course it is that, too). The poet listens to the radio show and then receives what it hears. Maybe the frequency or station it encounters is random (or maybe nothing is random, depending on your belief), and maybe the ears hear only what they want to. Still, the poem comes out with the conflation of ghost voices and the I is always a shape-shifter. This is something I tried to discuss in my lecture, ‘Poetry & the Metaphysical “I”’. So, I guess back to this question: do you think your poem in the current issue has many X’s? Does the elusive X always change? And even if the I and X are always shifting, are they always there? I want to believe there is more than just the embracing of an I and an X (however they change their costumes) or the rejection of these two. I want to believe in the Z-plane of poetry. But I am not sure yet what or who it acts towards or if it even involves the I or X at all.
AF: You’ve eluded discussion of ‘Never did amount to anything’! What are its algebras?
DL: I am so sorry to do that. Maybe my own poems bore me. Or at least talking about them. Especially if they are already written. They seem so dead. But yes, OK, its algebras do concern the X and I, maybe some sense of the elusive Z-plane in the shifting. It’s based on a Catullus poem, ‘43’. I am obsessed with Mayer and when I was working on my book I wanted to pay homage to some to the great things she has done, like loosely translate Latin poetry. And of course, in a book called ROME, you have to do some of this kind of literary translation or then what the heck are you doing? I love the original poem by Catullus, because in it he is dressing down some woman who presumably has rejected him. His poem is shorter, but having the Metaphysical I in the poem was important to me and I wanted more space than his poem allowed for. I get the idea of the Metaphysical I quite a bit from studying Catullus and Mayer. As Catullus says, ‘Odi et amo’ (‘I hate and I love’), and this is the quintessentially complex stance of an I in motion. Also, the poem gets some of its inspiration from a Facebook thread I saw once that posed the question: Plath or Sexton? So I had to commemorate it in the poem, too.
AF: Speaking of social media, some moron on Twitter claimed that there should be no more poetry books about Rome in 2014. I had to laugh. And while I remember being with you astride the Colosseum with Eileen Myles where you looked up, darting your eyes, furtive, no, no, not furtive, maddeningly clear-eyed, and declared to us, ‘My next book is going to be called ROME!’ I can’t help thinking two things – your poems are always cannibalizing what they are ostensibly about to root deeper, shift sideways, usually to axe some imaginative spectre or corpse, our putative X, but also, this is a larger issue, I know how much you reject dry-ass thinking à la proscriptions such as good poets should never use this or that word, etc. Why does that tick you off so much?
DL: I mean, I don’t love this line of thinking. I think it is silly and/or elitist to say certain subjects or words are off-limits. Off-limits to whom? The moon is the perfect example, and is often used in workshops. I remember so many workshops (taken as a student and taught) where someone said, ‘Oh you can’t use the moon in a poem.’ But who says so? We have the earth and there is a moon. Rome is a city with a big history. The town you live in is a place and the pastel diamond-patterned blanket you have that your grandmother made you as a baby is the only one in the world. These are such cliché examples and I use them on purpose. Both small and wide systems of the universal are always important. The moon is only a cliché to those who have been lucky enough to be educated well and to have read a million poems about the moon within the set of texts we determine as the canon due to all kinds of horrible factors. But to a person who sees the moon anew – what better place to put it than in a poem? The poet’s job is to be a novel language creator. But I don’t think we can make new language if we are scared to use old language. It’s not that we need to learn from the past always or necessarily. And what’s more, if the past emerges in a multitude of ways, why fight it. Who is one fighting, then, if not the past selves that could help it or you? Anyway, I digress, but I don’t like the idea of rules. They just make me want to break them and then protect anyone who has had a poetry rule put upon them. But I am a guilty party, too. I wrote a chapbook about how it got on my nerves how people use the word project when discussing a group of poems, because I want a book to be wild, never prescribed. But I’d like to give myself a pass on this, because this is a word used to discuss poetry, not put in a poem. So, what do you think about all of this? When you are writing your poems, do you think, oh shoot I shouldn’t use this word or that idea because it’s been done before, done to death?
AF: I’m certainly aware of it like any good MFA drone. (Not for the moon, I worship the moon.) Must. Target. Hackneyed. Occasion. But whereas I used to be much more intimidated or disgusted with the same things we all claim to be superior to, grown up about, I find myself these days sniffing out the opposite impulses. As in, how can I get into a poem, or through one, by embracing the supposed sand-traps. You know, like Houdini, if I begin in a straitjacket underwater, how does that go. For example, I want to write a new poem called ‘Ocean of Dick’. Years ago, I would never have thought of let alone pursued this title seriously because I ‘knew better’. Now I don’t want to know better. I want to be stupider about received wisdom, yes yes like we all do, but I think the poison has to fit the victim. Like for me, I know there are certain third rails I mostly avoid. Like in terms of subject matter, it would be family history, for instance. Or stylistically: straight-laced biography. Or modes in contemporary poetics I find easy in their mass appeal: knee-jerk pop references or ironically anti-literary gestures, anything that tries to be clever and well-liked, not too imposing and chummy in its smugness all the same. But then, like an accident site, I feel driven to all of these things because I’ve amassed resistance to them. And I firmly believe that art is a resistance machine. I want poetry to give hardcore thigh burn. As Frost said, no thigh burn for the writer, no thigh burn for the reader. I want to get to that place of cold neutrality where almost anything could work in poetry, though always somewhere obliquely remembering, it’s not all just up for grabs. It’s only fun to say fuck it to me if you’ve also been intimate with merciless control freak tendencies, in some way. Whereas a yoga surfer masseur slumming it at Venice Beach, if he says fuck it, you know, no biggie. But throw him in a corporate suit at a Lehman Brothers party in the West Village . . . now we’re talking. I love counterpoint. I love tying my strong hand behind my back. It makes surrendering to the old goals more enjoyable. Like if I go to the gym for an hour today, I’ll feel much better about spending the remaining twenty-three hours supine in bed like a lardo.
DL: Wait, what is surprising about the Lehman Brothers person saying, ‘fuck it’? No, no, I understand. Balance of the speaker and what they say – it’s always important. One thing needs another. Although maybe I love the yoga surfer who says fuck it, because it’s real, it’s not surprising. But I can see this working in your poems, both in The Late Parade and in your poem in the magazine. You teeter between overwhelming intelligence for language and the history of language and what sensually makes sense. Knowing you and knowing what poets you love makes this make sense to me, because there is a sensual quality to all of the ways in which they display a cold intelligence. I guess, I might ask, for the sake of the readers here, who are some of your favourite poets at the moment? And also, are you working on a new book to follow up your very wonderful The Late Parade, and if so, where is this book taking you? Do you feel that you are balancing the one hour at work with twenty-three hours at rest or are your new poems the one hour in the gym, or are they neither at the gym or in bed at all?
AF: Hmm, I like both, if that’s an option? Gym-as-bed. Bed-as-gym. OK, time for a pretty homo factoid. I do relish the fact that the word, if I’m not mistaken, comes from the Greek gymnaso, meaning to exercise naked. And maybe that’s what I’m saying about poetry, yes, yes, be naked, or try to get naked, but you gotta work it! It’s not enough to only flop or flex. But I’m going to interject another question here first. With Spicer, the poem really is a Martian, a foreign agent. An outside force. A stranger. But I can’t help feeling with your Metaphysical I, that outside foreignness, in the Romantic sense in which Stevens says And there I found myself more truly and more strange, or in the sense of Rimbaud, that the alien presence speaking the poem is really, at bedrock, your most true, most strange, most real self. And I don’t think Spicer wants the me and not-me to be connected, ultimately. In your work, however, I feel like the most vatic, prophetic, haunted speaker is somehow – is this the illusion? – the Real Dorothea Lasky. (Favourite poets at the moment: the Marianne Moore of ‘An Octopus’, the Eliot Weinberger of Karmic Traces, the Harryette Mullen of Sleeping with the Dictionary, the Kenneth Koch of The Circus both early and late versions.)
DL: But we can’t exercise naked, right? Or we can, but in private nowadays. But why? And maybe yes the poem should be the naked exerciser but put on the public stage, so that people assume the exerciser is crazy or doesn’t know the rules. But of course once you walk onto a large stage, you do. And you are so sweet to say this about the haunted speaker being my I. This is what I hope for, what I think a poet should do, but I am not sure if I am always successful. I think that the I must conflate the stranger with the familiar self, because the self is always a stranger, yes. We don’t ask to be these people when we are born, and yet we hang onto the idea of a constant being for our whole life term. In truth, the very idea of being is strange (like Jeff Magnum sings, ‘How strange it is to be anything at all’) and what better place to express that than in a poem? If this is an illusion, then I say, what isn’t! So, tell me (and us) now, who is the Real Adam Fitzgerald? Is he the naked exerciser on the stage? Maybe I do think of this Martian this way.
AF: Ah! Good lord! No naked exerciser on stage I. I know, I know, you mean in poetry, not public acts of exhibition. There was an underwater party at Fire Island this summer. I refused to jettison my articles of clothing. So here I am, the weirdo with his clothes on, among, well, an ocean of dick. Umm, to jump back to what you asked before: yes, I am working on a new book, tentatively titled George Washington. It fetishizeses things I thought I knew – my father, a suburban childhood and adolescence, shopping malls, Star Wars, all the faraway props and paraphernalia of growing up Jersey style. But there’s a strong nineteenth century Americana flavour throughout, too, that I think my Granta poem exercises.
DL: I don’t think I went to that naked underwater party either. Maybe I sat on the edge of the pool?
AF: Finally, let me ask, you’ve just published a book, your fourth, and I think your best yet. I wonder how you know when a new book is ‘ready’. I promise I’m not going to mention MFA culture. But for all of us newly published poets out there, how do you navigate those pressures, often internal and ferocious, to simultaneously wait, wait, wait but also produce, produce, produce. So much energy spent, or gained, in preparing, editing and pimping out (happily!) new work. (This immortal interview, for example.) But don’t these untalked about, somewhat embarrassing forces of being a writer who’s expected to be always touting something new also have their place and use? Not just professionally, that is. I don’t know.
DL: I think it is so hard to know. For some reason, I have been on this weird clock with all of my books where they all come out 2.5 years after each other. I don’t know why or if it’s biological or what. But I think I do start to get the itch at these regular intervals. With my book after ROME, I think it might be happening sooner – but we shall see. Anyway, I think when you are writing a new book, you have to be as quiet as you can about the outside forces that are telling you to either wait or produce. You have to listen to what you are creating as much as you can (even though this can be so hard, because we live in the real world with real pressures and real people who publish our books who have other timetables they are dealing with for practical reasons). I think often of when I heard the film-maker Frederick Wiseman give a talk at Harvard several years ago. Someone asked him, ‘How do you know when a movie is done?’ He said, ‘Well, for one thing, I never let anyone in the editing room, because I might listen to them.’ I think as poets we have to do this, too. Well, it’s getting kind of late, and the popcorn is done. Maybe we should end this and I can go back to talking to you on the phone twenty-three hours a day? While you aren’t naked exercising, of course.
AF: To the spring of Panops I go!