Poet David Baker’s new collection “Scavenger Loop” is forthcoming from W.W. Norton later this year. Daniel DeVaughn conducted this interview with Baker in mid-February.
Daniel DeVaughn: The new book is really fantastic. Could you talk a little about the genesis of these poems, especially the longer sequence that makes up section III, after which the book is titled?
David Baker: This book did not begin as a book. I don’t write that way. I don’t write poems thinking of a big final project. In fact, I tend to dislike “projects” as the word applies to artworks, though it’s certainly popular these days. It feels so clinical and calculated. Plus, of course, I like to change midstream and follow my work line by line. I am sure if I started a project, it would end up, if it ended anywhere, doing something entirely different from my projected aim. One of the dangers of a project is merely completing the task at hand, filling in the blanks to get to the place you knew, all along, you were headed. Projects seem suited to grants and governments.
So I write poems. The oldest poems—or oldest lines or pieces—in this book, Scavenger Loop, must be at least fifteen years old. Sometimes a piece doesn’t find its right context for a while, right? Most of this work was written from about 2008 into 2014, subsequent to my last book, Never-Ending Birds. I knew when I was writing some of the first poems here that they did not belong in Birds; that they were something else, for later. Then of course I just wrote, poem by poem. I did not know what the book would be for a long time—not until, really, “Scavenger Loop” (the sequence) began to take shape.
Of course I did know the new work was following some old trails. I write about the Midwest, the villages and farms and life here where I’ve lived nearly all my life. I did know the new poems were continuing to work through formal issues and curiosities—syllabics, stanzas, the relation of “poetic” form to syntax and selfhood and the identities of region and beyond. Some of the poems came out to be fairly semi-autobiographical, and some are historical characterizations, and some are bits and pieces of song and, well, whatever.
Then the task is just to sit down on the floor with a lot of pages and start tossing them around, and tossing them out, to shape something large with a form and rhetorical destination or, maybe better, rhetorical/musical dynamic as a whole. Then came the sequence.
Daniel DeVaughn: Was “Scavenger Loop” a sequence from the beginning of its creation or did it become one in some other way? Do you set out to write sequences or do you find that certain poems simply fall together of their own accord, to say nothing of the “will” of a poem.
David Baker: I have wanted to write about Midwest farming for a long time. I mean, corporate farms and GMOs and the decay of farm villages and “development” (what a contradictory term) and exurbs and franchises. I wrote bits and pieces for a long time, and researched some of the big agri-business corporations, and gathered lots of stuff. If this sequence is anything, it is a scavenger’s gathering of stuff—found phrases, autobiographical images, information from unreliable places and reliable places, poems and Twitter and ads—and I wanted to confront them without prioritizing or judging them. Then of course the destination changed. I had a draft of a longish sequence about Monsanto and cornfields and villages, and then my mother fell ill—old age, heart trouble, more. I spent the last month of her life with her, in spring 2013, and began writing again, and looped some of that grief and experience into the sequence. I found myself, in other words, returning to the pastoral elegy. I’d had the pastoral part—the postmodern pasture of corporate farming—and then I needed to make room for the elegiac part. Perhaps this sequence becomes an elegy for my mother, but perhaps also it elegizes a way of life. It is not an elegy for nature or the world. The world will be fine, with or without us, or at least it will go on. The pasture will continue in some form or another. We may not.
Sometimes I do know, early on, that I’m writing a sequence. Sometimes a work or works seem to morph into that. I don’t want to know too much too early. Long poems turn short; short ones sometimes just keep going; one subject finds itself becoming another; one manner of line wants to be recast, reformed, reshaped. I try to take my time. I tell myself: There is no hurry.
I didn’t answer your question. “Scavenger Loop” was from the beginning made of pieces. I did not know it would be made of so many little pieces and fragments and scraps. I did not know it would be made of so many kinds of poetic style and form (though the decasyllabic line presides) nor that it would essentially be a journey—from my front yard in Ohio back across the Midwest to mid-Missouri and my parents’ yard and the hospital and graveside, then back to my backyard. Nor that it would include formulas and medical stuff and chemical information and prayers and children’s books. We go in search and we gather and we make. Or remake.
Daniel DeVaughn: “Fall Back”, “Belong To”, “The Windmill”, “Corner Window”, “As a Portent”, and “The Quiet Side Street”—all of these poems in Scavenger Loop employ an extremely spacious lineation while ignoring almost all convention of capitalization and punctuation. The subsequent effect is of a single long line woven of a sort of syntactical cross-stitch, so that the reader is free to take the whole or unweave that one long breath into smaller, discreet strands of sense. Was this particular style of lineation pre-determined or did it come about “post-hoc”? What is your desired effect?
David Baker: I like that cross-stitch trope, Daniel. I consciously thought about that trope. My grandmother was a superb seamstress and I grew up watching her make quilts and sew fabrics and hand-stitch and machine-sew so many things. She lived with us. She made some of my school clothes and even Halloween costumes. I remember exploring trunks and trunks of fabrics, boxes and drawers of thimbles and pins and rickrack and whatnot. I watched her make beautiful things out of the most unlikely materials. Scavenger.
But to your question: I found myself wanting to explore the syllabic line more deeply. That’s a manner of metric I have been fascinated with for nearly 20 years. But I also hope to be cautious of doing something so much it becomes mindless. So a lot of things were happening when I started to open up my syllabic lines. I’d been reading Anglo-Saxon poetry again from Heaney’s Beowulf to lots of the anonymous lyrics. I’d been reading Merwin, my favorite contemporary poet, a truly great poet. I’d been looking for spaciousness, openness, some kinds of rupture and slippage, while still holding on to the syllabic. And longing for more lyricism, a kind of new rigorous gorgeousness.
I mean, if you look at some of the most loosened poems here, like “As a Portent,” you’ll see it’s actually a decasyllabic poem. It is phrasal, its sources are many (including a touch from Merwin), and its syntax is pretty ruptured. But it’s a ten-syllable line with a medial caesura, too. Likewise “Belong To,” which is a riff on the great 50’s tune “You Belong to Me.” The song begins, “See the pyramids along the Nile . . .” and so I pick up with “See the pair of us . . .” and I keep up some of the song’s rhythm while making the narrative veer away. This one too is decasyllabic with a medial fracture and caesura. And this one stitches in phrases from lots of sources, not just the song, but also a bit from Mary Ruefle and Franz Wright and more. Poet as scavenger. There is no original moment, only echo and after-effect and remnant. And that becomes the collateral narrative here to the falling-apart love story buried in this poem.
About the conventions. Yes, I want in some of these poems an increasing plainness, or an increasing sparseness, to offset an increasing opacity or slippage. Remember that poetry’s toolbox of punctuation includes line-break, caesura, phrasal length—these are fundamental kinds of mechanical, rhythmic, and cognitive control or punctuation. So I’m putting special pressure on these things, by highlighting them, in some poems here.
The desired effect—good question—is basic. To make a kind of music, to create a manner of lyric, a rhythmic, bodily sensation. To make song a kind of intelligence.
Daniel DeVaughn: I’ve noticed a trend in social media lately, mostly Facebook (which you mention in “Scavenger Loop”!), of writers, mostly poets it seems, who have taken up a mantle of sorts of the “political pundit” or “social commentator” or “cultural apologist,” whatever you want to call it—there is this drive to “tell it like it is” as if the poet, the writer, had a privileged perspective on current events or the trends of history, which, I guess, is simply assumed of writers now. Could you speak to that? Have you noticed any similar phenomena? Is the poet still a mouthpiece for the greater community of which he or she is a part?
David Baker: I have noticed this. It has never been otherwise. Facebook and all the other social media notwithstanding, it has never been otherwise. And the opposite has never been otherwise, too. I mean this practically. Here are two poets, both of whose work I admire hugely, dealing with the same issues you ask about and answering powerfully:
“All language, then, is political; vision is always ideologically charged; perceptions are shaped a priori by our assumptions and sensibility is formed by a consciousness at once social, historical, and aesthetic. There is no such thing as nonpolitical poetry.” That’s Carolyn Forche.
And here is W. H. Auden: “Why writers should be canvassed for their opinion on controversial political issues I cannot imagine. Their views have no more authority than those of any reasonably well-educated citizen. Indeed . . . statements made by writers, including the greatest, would seem to indicate that literary talent and political common sense are rarely found together.”
Poetry’s beauty—one of its sources of power and breadth—is its range about such things. I turn to poetry for its political aptitude. I also turn to poetry as an antidote to politics. I greatly appreciate that it is an art capable of paradox, opposition, even in its very character. It can do many things. I do not want to pin it down, to say “poetry should tell it like it is” or “poetry should be invention rather than a depiction of reality,” or whatever.
Some poets are mouthpieces for the greater community. Some poets purposely take on that stance. Some do not. The poet is much less interesting to me, here, in these questions, than the poem. Poems do indeed both reflect and create their community. They are—as a collective expression—one of our truest and most honest such representations of our community, even as they are highly intimate, personal, artful, and private.
Daniel DeVaughn: Did you feel any sort of social responsibility as a young poet starting out, or was it more of a singular artistic pursuit?
David Baker: I did not and do not feel a social responsibility. I feel a social membership. Even poetry, with its intense privacy, is also intensely public or social, as I was just saying. I love some poets who do feel that responsibility; and I dearly distrust others. I have enough anarchist in me to distrust many who seek to “speak for” others. I do not look for a poem to change my mind. I look for a poem to shape my mind.
Daniel DeVaughn: A lot of poets nowadays, young poets especially, seem to be relying more and more on evocative and sometimes even sensationalized content over the more traditional approach, from the standpoint of both form and craft. As an editor, have you noticed a similar trend, and if not, what sorts of trends do you see in the new poetry that you’ve been getting in the mail and reading? What sort of poem are you looking for as the editor of The Kenyon Review?
David Baker: Well, there’s a big difference between evocation and sensationalism, isn’t there? I do not know a time when poets did not employ evocation, did not want to be evocative. Do you? Poetry’s ability to evoke is one of its beautiful imperatives. We try to evoke rather than explain, try to be dramatic and lyrical rather than expository, right? But yes, I do read a great deal of poetry just now that seems as sensational, and as comically pathetic, as The National Enquirer or Fox News or whatever.
Nor do I think evocation and traditional form are opposites. In fact, traditional form can evoke the most remarkable things in the hands of a superb poet. All poems—as I have written and argued often—are formal constructions. But you’re right, there is so much sloppy, hasty, arrogant, mere-workshop-ready poetry out there just now. And I am not identifying a particular formal style in that statement: There are awful formal poems and free-verse poems and whatever kind of poems. It is not enough to dash off a poem about the latest headline, fashion show, tweet, or workshop prompt, and think that is sufficient to be a poem. Dear god, there are poets who try to write a poem a day and find that to be validating.
What have I been getting in the mail at Kenyon Review? Well, in the last four-month reading period, we received something like 10,000 submissions, 10,000 batches of things. So we have been getting everything in the mail. So much, now, that it’s hard to summarize. I do see that people write too quickly—no, I mean, they submit too quickly and too randomly, and do not live with their poems and let the poems mature. What is the hurry? Job-security, validation, panic, desperation? I see people treating their own poems like diaries and news-feeds and psychotherapy sessions. Poetry is not therapy. It is not medicine. It is not a newspaper or sermon or tract—though of course poems make use of all of these rhetorical methods and affiliations.
I am as likely to accept an experimental poem as a traditional one; a long one or a short one. I can say I am looking hard at poems for their treatment of nature, in whatever definitions that word “nature” may orbit. I am particularly excited about a special feature coming in our May/June 2015 issue called “Nature’s Nature.” For two years I have been quietly gathering poems for this feature, which will showcase work from twenty-one poets and will look at many of the different things a poet means, or suggests, or points to, when she or he treats nature in a poem. I think we are going to make this a regular feature in KR.
But to answer your question more fully and accurately:
What I look for is to be surprised.
What I look for is the poem I did not know I was looking for.
What I look for is authenticity. Engagement. Lyrical profundity. Strangeness. An occasion to discover “the other.” An occasion to recover “the self.”
What I look for is one poem at a time.
Daniel DeVaughn: Many, if not all, of the poems in the new book “sing” as they say, there’s a sensual immediacy to them that attains to music and carries the sense of each line across and down the page. I’ve been discussing with friends lately the value or the purpose of “music” in poetry, if poetry really can “attain to the quality of music,” to something that visceral. Could you speak to that a little? Can a poem devoid of music exist or is that something completely different? Did this music have anything to do with your becoming a poet rather than say, a novelist?
David Baker: Poe says that “it is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles.”
The musical nature of poetry is one of its distinguishing, essential features. Poets tend to think harder about phrasal rhythm, about tone and pitch and harmony, about syntactic counterpoint, than other writers. That’s a generalization, I know. Many poets are tone-deaf and clueless about the musical possibilities of their art. And some prose writers are highly attuned to musical opportunities in their prose. But generally, poetry is linguistic music, and its meaning is as much about sound and musical authenticity as about theme or cognitive information. If it doesn’t sing, in some way, it ain’t poetry. And of course its song may be raucous or disjunct as well as melodious or harmonic.
For myself, I was a musician long before I was a poet. I started playing music at about age eight, and starting teaching music—the guitar—at about age 13 or 14. I have played with lots of kinds of bands playing lots of kinds of music, from jazz to country to rock to chamber. When I started writing poetry, in college, I knew even then that it was a quieter and more personally suited way of continuing to be a musician. That’s why, I guess, it was poetry I turned to. I could still make music and not have to lug around my big old Fender amp and all the gear. But it’s still in my blood. I am currently doing a few performances of “Scavenger Loop” with the River Song Quintet, a new-music chamber/jazz ensemble based in L.A.
Can a poem devoid of music exist?
Even silence is musical.
But some poems can be much more aligned to painting, to the visual, than to music or the aural. That’s a whole nother thing, as they say. I think this divide is one of the fundamental distinctions in the kinds of poetry. There are poets and schools of poetry that are primarily musical. There are poets and schools that are primarily visual. And of course there are poets who weave them, like Whitman.
Daniel DeVaughn: Oftentimes, I feel as if you, the speaker, whatever you want to call it, is intentionally evading the reader, usually via manipulations of (i.e. difficult) syntax, a lack of punctuation as guideposts of sense, or strange/odd lineation, as if you mean for them to get lost in their search for meaning, only to be found again, or led, by the speaker toward sense. Could you comment on that occlusion or evasion? Is it the poet’s job, as Frost believed, to trick or confuse, and if so, what’s the point, what’s the end-game?
David Baker: I usually distrust poems that evade. I absolutely have no intention to be evasive. That is coy or confused or silly. I do not mean for anyone to get lost or to stay lost. Evasion is a sophomoric tactic. Poems want to be clear. So let me be clear about this! Sometimes a poem is hoping to be clear about an unclear thing.
In my little universe, bad poets are those who write unclearly about clear things. Good poets are those who write clearly about unclear things.
If my poems are sometimes difficult or opaque or possessed of multiple possibilities, I hope they are this way in order to create a valid, authentic expression of the difficulty, opacity, or ambiguity of every single moment of every single life. If they reach clarity, I hope they reach clarity out of those moments of difficulty, too. I do not want my poems to evade, but often I do want my poems to suspend our need for certainty or stability.
Where did Frost say the poet’s job is to trick and confuse? That seems unlike him, don’t you think? He did say that anyone who isn’t confused isn’t well informed. But he also said, famously, that a poem is a momentary stay against confusion. He also said he likes to fool sometimes, likes to be a trickster. He can be a good example of a poet whose most powerful work is both clarifying and endlessly untranslatable.
I am in my own recent work trying to write clearly about unclear things. And sometimes I hope to express that in narrative terms, and sometimes in formal or tactical terms, or I guess in whatever means the poem gives me. I do not, though, want to evade. I want to create a space or aura or atmosphere of complexity, beauty, and rigor—a space not where we’ll find the answer, particularly, but where we’ll be able to frame the question, or maybe better, where answers are irrelevant and awareness or acknowledgment is more the desired condition.
Daniel DeVaughn: This is certainly a generalization, but there seem to be two competing modes of poetry nowadays, one which is narrative, traditional, and its own justification, that is to say self-evident to the reader, and another which is scientific and exploratory, a matter of discovery, accrual, and faithfulness to the “real world.”
David Baker: It has never been otherwise. Sometimes poetry discovers what is there. Sometimes poetry invents what can be there. Sometimes we report and sometimes we amend. Sometimes we narrate and sometimes we sing.
No, I take that last sentence back. In a good poem, we always narrate and we always sing. That’s because I think language, every basic grammatical structure, is narrative. The very relation of subject to predicate is a narrative relationship. And a poem wants to make that narrative construction sing.
Therefore, I do not hold that there’s a polar dichotomy between the lyric poem and the narrative poem. All poems live (and fluctuate) on the continuum described by those modes. All good poems are both narrative and lyric. It’s the particular nature of that narrative, and the particular means of those lyric aspects, that make any one poem rich and distinct.
Daniel DeVaughn: Many well-known poets have passed in the last year or two years, and I have begun to think that a certain “changing of the guard” is taking place in the world of poetry, or has been for some time now, but then, does the guard ever change in poetry? Is it possible in a world of creative-poetic singularities for a prevailing guard, garde, or order, to actually exist or is that simply an illusion of perspective?
David Baker: I like your term singularities, Daniel. It has never been otherwise. Poetry is one at a time. Constancy is a fiction. Poetry teaches us—and sings to us this song—that the fluidity of things is their natural form.