The poet discusses autonomy, apocalypse, and Larry Levis. (full transcript below)
Ben Evans: I’m Ben Evans and you’re listening to Fogged Clarity. This afternoon I’m pleased to be joined by the poet Jeffrey Schultz. Schultz’s debut collection, What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other was selected in 2013 for the National Poetry Series and published by the University of Georgia Press. Among other distinctions, he is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and the “Discovery”/Boston Review Prize. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Indiana Review, Missouri Review, and, as of this month, Fogged Clarity. Jeffrey, I appreciate you taking the time.
Jeffrey Schultz: It’s my pleasure, thank you so much for having me.
BE: In both your debut collection and the chapbook manuscript you sent me, Resolution in Living Memory of Sky & Gooseflesh, there seems a pronounced frustration with cultural forces, chiefly American, that impinge on the individual beyond our control. Bombarded with inanity and excess; challenged by the anesthetizing routines required for survival, what’s seemingly at stake in your poems is the preservation of autonomy and, by extension, dignity. Given our current social and technological climate do you feel as if this autonomy is in greater jeopardy now than in the past?
JS: Yeah. I mean, thank you, it makes me so happy that that’s coming across in the poems. It seems to me that the rights of the individual to freely develop as the individual are deeply endangered right now, and maybe to some extent the more we’re told that the individual is central to life. There are all these technologies that are based around sort of projecting individual identity, I mean, mostly internet things, and I feel that to some extent the more our culture turns toward the individual in that way the more the individual is commodified and turned into not itself at all, but, in fact, is just another sort of functional piece of the larger social economic system. Which doesn’t sound great to me.
BE: No, and I think poetry is an assertion of the individual and works so strongly against that, saying: Here I am. But of course, autonomy presents its own set of troubles, namely: uncertainty, restlessness, and questions of meaning, and I think we find your work both elucidating and struggling with these issues as well as those I mentioned before. I wonder if you’d speak a bit to the dynamic between the internal and the external in your poetry. To what degree do your speaker’s anxieties stem from observing the world, and to what degree are your speaker’s a priori anxieties shaping how the world is observed?
JS: Yeah, I mean I think more and more when I’m writing I’m trying to be conscious of that balance or that dialectic between those poles. It seems that they rise out of each other, right, that those individual worries and anxieties rise out of those social anxieties and those social anxieties are manifestations of collective individual anxieties. And so what I would hope to look for are ways that can speak to the relationships between those without coming down on one side or the other as a first principle. The question of autonomy becomes very complicated then, you want sort of maximum autonomy within a system that realizes relational dependence. There are lots of ways I have not figured out how this works yet. When I say “yet” I guess I’m very hopeful that I could, or that someone could. But that brings up a series of questions about language and the function of language, and figures, and structures in poetry– how to be able to speak simultaneously to that level of the particular and that level of the universal in a way that doesn’t necessarily privilege the development of one over the development of the other, but looks for a balance between them. So, I think that’s the sort of struggle of the project of writing these poems. I mean lyric poetry, because it rises from this very strong tradition in the individual speaker and the individual voice expressing itself, it has a tendency to sort of necessarily slant toward the particular. So, I think in some ways one of the struggles I face when I try to write these things is how to pull more of the universal or objective factors in to challenge the particular or subjective factors.
BE: Yeah, you went to Oregon and so did I, the program there, and I think that’s what’s emphasized there is presenting something that’s familiar to invite the reader in to something that might not be so familiar, something that might be more personal. So, kind of, presenting a common ground to invite someone in and develop a trust. When I’m looking at landscape that’s something I’m trying to do.
JS: Yeah. I really credit that education, the MFA at Oregon, with helping me focus on those aspects. I did my undergrad at Fresno State and you know the tradition revolving around Phil Levine is very strong here. I’m in Fresno right now.
BE: Did Levis teach there as well?
JS: Levis was a student here. I don’t think he ever taught here. But he was an undergrad here. I’m actually at my in-laws house right now, my father-in-law is the poet CG Hanzlicek who taught with Phil Levine and Peter Everwine at Fresno State from the ’60s forward. Larry Levis actually introduced my in-laws. Levis was one of my father-in-law’s first students.
BE: That’s fascinating. I hear echoes of Levis in What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other too. There are a couple moments, though I don’t have it on hand right now… I remember in his poem (Levis’) “Anastasia and Sandman” when he says “Dear (members) of the committee on the ineffable” I hear something like that in one of your poems as well, where you’re addressing this body.
JS: I mean, he was very influential for me. I read him when I was still here and it was very close in the landscapes to the landscapes I grew up with, so it hit me in a very immediate way, but I spent a lot of time with it too. And I think, yeah, certainly a lot of his ways of addressing those problems have worked into my work and hopefully are transforming. Those abstractions though, “Members of the committee on the ineffable” and all those things. When we were talking just a second ago about how to pull in those sort of objective or universal matters to challenge the particular… I mean, that’s one thing that I love about his work, I think he strikes that balance really well in his best poems.
BE: I agree, but, you know, I was reading The Dollmaker’s Ghost probably four months ago, I was living in Ferndale, so six, seven months ago, in Michigan, and I read that last section and I had to put it down, it was pure oblivion, it was… there was nothing redeeming there, it was too sad for me. And I think Elegy, despite it’s name, is kind of a more affirming book, but some of that early Levis, I find it very, very difficult to read now, there’s such a deep despondence there.
JS: No, I agree. It seems like there’s a pivot that starts in “Winter Stars” and then develops over the last books that is trying to pull something like hope out of the end. And it’s always struggling. And, yeah, the early books are bleak. I don’t read them as much either.
BE: Did Levis indeed have a son?
JS: I think he does, I don’t know anything about him. There’s a documentary about him (Levis) coming out supposedly this fall.
BE: Yeah, they haven’t found the funding…Did they finally find the funding? VCU was doing it.
JS: Yeah, I think so. I was talking about it to my in-laws the other night because they interviewed him (Hanzlicek) for it. But, yeah, supposedly it should be done and maybe released this fall.
BE: I have never seen video of him read. There was a link on (Blackbird) to a video of him and it’s choppy, maybe very fitting for Larry, but it’s choppy and it’s blurry and it cuts out after like 9 seconds.
JS: Yeah, I think I’ve watched that same thing. I mean, I never met him, he passed before I met my wife, and then my in-laws.
BE: Is your wife a poet as well?
JS: No, she’s in social work. She’s actually doing a PhD at UCLA right now. I’m sorry, there’s a plane going overhead… So actually there are scattered references to social workers in the book.
BE: I ask if it’s your anxieties impressing upon the world and yet I find your cultural depictions hauntingly accurate, and never more so than in the poem from your debut collection, “J. Resists the Urge to Comment on Your Blog”. I wonder if you’d read that for us, and then speak a bit about its origins?
JS: Yeah, sure.
Reads: “J. Resists the Urge to Comment on Your Blog”
BE: Geez, amid this chaos, amid this commodification of the soul and the individual, that strikes me as what is triumphant, to still be able to say that, something like that, and that’s why I keep coming back to poetry, you know? You had to feel proud writing that poem and naming it; there is so much solace in at least naming the ills isn’t there?
JS: Yeah, I mean an experience I have over and over when writing, which I find, now, enormously comforting, you know, you work your way into a poem and your working with this set of images that struck you for whatever reason and moving through them and trying to get them on the page in the way that gets across what they are in some sort of communicable sense… and I often get really bogged down at some point in a poem and just don’t know where to go, and it’s like: Well, I could just say what I was thinking, you know; like that original moment of the poem sort of expresses intent, sort of bubbles up at the end of the poem, and it’s like: Oh, well that’s what I meant, wasn’t it, and why not just say that? And I think that’s a poem where that happened, towards the end I had sort of wound my way through all these connections and then I was like: Wait, why was I doing this? So that we could do something else. Not that a poem can necessarily do that on its own of course, but at least to point us toward its possibility.
BE: Absolutely, and it is, I keep coming back, and the poets that I read: Penn Warren, Wilbur, even Levis, it comes down to love it seems, Justice for sure, therein is the redemption and the salvation, or at least, if not redemption, then what carries us on. “Love calls us to the things of this world”, as Wilbur wrote.
JS: No, and I think a poet has to move from that place. Maybe not a poet, but poetry has to somehow.
BE: You favor a longer line. Has that always been the case? What is it, do you think, in the nature of your voice and your meditations that prefers that lateral space, one where ideas are permitted to unfurl more freely?
JS: Yeah, I mean I came to that relatively early. By the time I went to the MFA I was already working in pretty long lines, although far less consistently long, that’s been something that’s changed. And I’m sure originally it was that I was reading poems… I was enjoying these poems that had long lines and I suppose I started trying to work on them to figure out what that was. I remember reading C.K. Williams “Tar” early on and those incredibly long lines that do allow for an accumulation of images and connections between sort of disparate moments. He uses narrative in those lines in interesting ways too. I’ve actually started to worry…I’ve pledged to one of my colleagues at Pepperdine this summer to try to write some haiku, not that I would necessarily ever try to publish them, but just to see if I could still write a short form or a short line because I’ve actually begun to worry that I don’t know how to do that anymore. But yeah, I’ve always preferred the long line and its momentum and the way that momentum allows you to connect and gather ideas and hopefully put things together in new arrangements.
BE: There are two very distinctive framing techniques at work in What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other both initiated by titles. The title of six poems in the collection begin “The Soul as…” as in “The Soul as Social Service Caseworker” or “The Soul as Episode in the Supermarket”. How did you arrive at this strategy of imagining the soul as animate object or experience?
JS: Yeah, I mean a lot of it just came out of a confusion about what other people were talking about when they talked about the soul. Which I feel like in a lot of sort of contemporary whatever you would call it, spiritual discourse, the soul is this sort of nebulous and general and universal thing, rather than something that’s absolutely particularized to each individual. I mean, at least in American spiritual discourse I think that’s true. And I’ve never felt like I had some sort of nebulous, universal thing within me, so it started out just as a way to think about, if I was going to think about the soul how could I think about that in a way that would make sense to me. And it seems that it had to do with a very particular experiences that an individual has that then shaped the individual in some very distinct way from that period onward and so I tried to start thinking about what those instances were in my life or the lives of people I knew or had witnessed I guess. I don’t like that term “witness” actually.
BE: “The Soul as Episode in the Supermarket”, quite a stunning poem. I wonder, is that your episode?
JS: Yeah, that was actually the first of those soul poems too. But no, I’ve always had a strange sort of awe and horror that I’ve experienced in reaction to modern supermarkets. Like all of this sort of color and music and the sculpting of the fruit piles and all these things which I feel amazed and refreshed when I look at at first and the sort of artificiality of it that comes back as this shock of horror. I still love going to the store for that reason. Or, whenever I move to a new town or a new grocery store opens up that’s a very exciting moment in my life. But, yeah, that is very much a feeling I sometimes get just doing the grocery shopping; that there’s something about that presentation of plenty that’s sort of euphoric and horrifying to me simultaneously.
BE: You know, I had strawberries from the farmer’s market today, and I eat strawberries rather often from the grocery store, and there’s just no comparison. I mean, we don’t even know what food tastes like anymore.
JS: No, it’s genuinely shocking. More and more we try not to use the supermarkets as much. Which, in L.A., where we are now, it’s perfectly possible, there are farmer’s markets everywhere, I mean they’re every day of the week somewhere in town.
BE: Is that, I mean you have that, but I’d imagine that LA is stifling in a way and I think that comes through a little bit, most certainly in the heat and the mentions of the heat in this book, but also… Is there a lack of landscape there, or do you feel as if you have enough access to nature to be content?
JS: No, I mean, there is a lack of landscape for sure, and it is a stifling place. The heat on the concrete reflecting up and all these things. And, growing up in Fresno where it’s very hot, I think it’s going to be 105 today, those sort of images have always stuck with me, or those sensations, I guess, have been with me throughout my life. The first year we lived in LA we lived in Hollywood just below Griffith Park, which is this enormous park, and I would walk up there everyday and there were these little trails that are really lovely and you could get a sense of sort of nature there, except it was still…you know there were homeless people sleeping along the paths and this and that, it’s still obviously an urban environment. But since then we’ve moved towards the middle of the city and it’s a very different sort of thing. I’ve never lived in such a sprawling place before and I think that urban landscape has taken over the aspect of landscape in my work. I mean, just because that’s what I see, I walk the dog everyday and…
BE: What kind of pup you have?
JS: A golden retriever, it’s sitting out here staring at me right now.
BE: Well, I mentioned these techniques and the second is the establishment of this persona “J.” We get titles like “J. Steals from the Rich and Uses the Money to Get Drunk Again” or “J. Begins by Saying The World’s Not as it Should Be.” And, I should say, you’ve acknowledged that this “J” series of poems was influenced by Ernesto Trejo’s “E” poems. Was it freeing to establish this persona, if we can call it that? Did it allow you to gain a distance from which to report on yourself more objectively, or perhaps to not take yourself, the “I” as seriously? What do you see as the function of that “J.”?
JS: Yeah, in many ways it was exactly what you just said. It really did give me a distance, and the first one of those, I just threw that on as a working title to a poem at some point, and doing that gave me a sense of distance from the events of the poem. Which is interesting, because it’s very much acknowledging that it is me, but at the same time that it is transformed slightly and there was a freedom in that. And it came at a time when I think I was rethinking the relationship between whatever the event or moment or experience was in my life was and the poem and sort of moving a little bit further away from whatever sort of autobiographical moment is sort of sedimented in the poem as primary. I mean, obviously it’s still there, but it gave me a way to push that back away and look at it as an experience; not an experience I had necessarily but just an experience and what could be said about that experience. And Trejo certainly…I mean he had translated a book by Jaime Sabines where there are a number of poems that begin Tarumba which is a name he calls himself at the beginning of these poems where he’s addressing himself. And I think he was also influenced by Berryman and, you know, there are so many people who’ve found ways to do that. I just like that initial though.
BE: Ocean Vuong just wrote that poem that appeared in The New Yorker (“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”).
JS: Oh yeah.
BE: I mentioned your chapbook manuscript Resolution in Loving Memory of Sky & Gooseflesh which is a new sequence of prosimetrics, can I call them prosimetrics?
JS: Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what to call them, so that sounds good.
BE: Can you discuss the inspiration behind this manuscript? It’s alternately beautiful and somewhat scathing, it seems to me to investigate mortality and human significance, but I was wondering if you could talk about some of the themes it explores and what you were setting out to do.
JS: I mean that was a really interesting poem to write and it took a very long time, I’m sure I worked on that for over a year. It started with a line from a poem that I wrote when I was an undergraduate and it was actually the first time I ever published, I got it into Willow Springs or something and I don’t remember what the line was right now. It’s sort of broken up in the new poem, and its not a poem that appeared in the book, but it was a line about an image of contrails turning red as the fires that bore them or something as the sun sets and the contrails catch the sunset. And I’ve always kind of loved that image, although the poem that I had it in I don’t think worked that well, it was fine, And I wanted to revisit that line or that image and try to look at what might be inside of it if I treated it more seriously and not just as a single image that moved on immediately to something else, and so I just started with that line and said: Well, what else could be said about this and what else is implied inside of that image? And so it was a sort of a project of trying to pull what was concealed inside an image up to the surface and that began to then structure the poem as a whole. So, it’s written in these very long, well sometimes very long, sometimes very short, sentences, each of which is an attempt to more or less completely explore some aspect of the core group of images that make up the poem.
BE: Which is this skywriting that’s fading before it completes memorializing someone, is that right?
JS: Yeah, so like, this idea that there could be meaning there but we cannot see it because it’s constantly dissipating and if only we could see that whole thing at once we might be able to recognize something and then the poem tries to expand into that whole thing although it can’t. But, no, it took me a long time to figure out how to write it. Originally it was just one very long column, but it became impossible to work on—I couldn’t hold the idea in my head and so I broke it up into little separate sections. And that I think is the thing that finally… I mean hopefully it found a form that could get the content across in the right way; that could form the content in the way it needed to be formed. But that was one of those ones that was very surprising for me which is always nice. It felt like I had somehow honestly gotten to the thing I was trying to get at.
BE: Yeah, that’s the best stuff. And it’s amazing (it came) from something that’d been in your subconscious for some fifteen, twenty years; or something that stuck with you. Yeah, that’s sometimes how it works.
BE: So, there’s this malaise in your work, do you carry that in your life day to day or is that something you reserve for the page?
JS: It’s with me, I think (laughs). And it’s…You know, more or less, at different times. I think this actually comes up quite a bit when I teach, because I will often center the class that day around whatever the most depressing thing in the news was or begin the class there and then move through the content. And I’ve very often had students ask things like: Well, why are you trying to depress us? And again, I think it’s this issue of balance that I’m looking for. I don’t think we could approach anything like true joyousness or true beauty or anything of that sort unless it moves through sort of objective ugliness and it seems to me only the sort of hopefulness, or joyousness, or beauty that can survive being pulled through the worst aspects of reality and come out the other side, I mean, certainly scarred, but still somehow in tact; I think only that has any truth to it. So, I mean both, I think, in the poems and to whatever extent I’m able to actually balance that in my own life, which is certainly not perfectly, I try to remain aware that, you know, none of these moments we experience are in isolation and all of them entail all the others and so, you know, no matter how wonderful or beautiful a day I’m having—I teach at Pepperdine which is in Malibu and its on the hill above the water and you can easily walk around there and be distracted by the beauty of the world, but that that isn’t true in and of itself, right? I try to remember that all of these other things are also occurring and the moment I’m experiencing now could not occur as such if all those moments weren’t also occurring. So that moves towards that call to justice, right; that there is sort of guilt entailed in joyousness and that guilt should drive us toward a sense of justice.
BE: So do you find yourself unable to abandon thought in the presence of great beauty because you feel this compunction?
JS: Well, I… I mean I think I can, I think I do for some moments, the re-entry of thought I think in my experience is proceeded by something that is not sort of conscious cognition, it seems more like the experience of great beauty or great joy also in a sort of immediate or spontaneous way seems to pull at these feelings of guilt and horror, and it’s then the tension between those two sets of feelings for the experience that then I think pull towards actual reflective thought, for me. But yeah, I wouldn’t say I can’t get out of my head or whatever, but at least at this point as I experience the world there is something that draws me back into that. But I don’t think it’s a matter of not being able to experience the world in an immediate or spontaneous way from the get go, it’s just that those things always seem to pull back towards that reflective moment for me.
BE: Yeah, see, in my experience, I kind of flagellated myself so much, and went through so many harrows that I reached a state of peace and transcended that unnecessary thinking and so that’s the lens I’ve been reading poetry through and doing some of these interviews through. But having come back home, I’m back in West Michigan now, I see a sadness, I see people, bigger people, with kind of sad eyes and I think that’s why your book, whereas I might not of, when I was reading the Tao Te Ching four months ago in a state of tranquility, I don’t think I would have been as drawn or compelled by it, as I am having come home and observed this real world malaise. And I don’t know if the best thing I can do is comment on that or to continue to be a source of light and brightness that sort of projects out upon that and hopefully touches and changes some people in the course of that projection.
BE: So I’m reluctant to call this malaise in your work resignation, the acuity of your observations suggests a world worthy of our attention, and of our concern. Do you think there’s a sympathy that exists in merely chronicling the chaos by which we’re surrounded and in which we take part? I guess, is the writing of any poetry at all an act of compassion?
JS: Yeah, I mean, I certainly hope so. I mean one of the things… This is a question that, I don’t think there will be an end to this question, but it’s something I think about very, very often is how… I think my poems have become more sort of reflective in that way; that their sort of intellectual moment hits images as soon as they enter in in a lot of my newer poems, and I tend not to be willing to let those seemingly immediate experiences linger. But my thinking is that I would only want to do that if it was a way to make those experiences be able to truly linger, right? My worry is that we’ve become very complacent and perhaps resigned to immediacy and that we sort of box everything else out and take pleasure in these moments in and of themselves, they can’t stand as true on their own. I would like to have a world where that was what we could do; where you could live a good life that wasn’t connected to this massive, inhumane structuring of the world. But I think in order to move towards that we somehow have to really very, very clearly look at exactly what we are doing wrong; that we can only change things once we really realize what we are dealing with. And I think that’s where the problem for practical action in the world is—you know, what can I do about the climate change that is currently destroying the world or the growth in wealth inequality or racial injustice or gender injustice or any of these things, right, I mean we all have this feeling of, I mean, I think we all have this feeling, of just not being able to do anything as an individual. Yet, of course if all of us tried to do something as individuals at about the same time we could have a different world by lunch. It’s just that sort of helplessness combined with that possibility of actual change or actual practice in the world that is really sort of the key problem I think we face. And as far as I have been able to figure I don’t think we can get to the answers of how to change things without really critiquing all of the moments that keep us from acting, right? And so a critique of beauty or what we experience as beauty seems to me somehow really very necessary for moving toward a more fully realized beauty; a beauty that doesn’t have to be complicit in ugliness.
BE: That’s so funny because my next question was: What, in the end, do you think will jar us out of the complacency that seems to stifle true and lasting progress? Will it be ecological, societal, militaristic—you talk a lot about apocalypse, do you see some large scale reckoning nearing and do you think that reckoning could be corrective in any way?
JS: That’s a question… I would hope it wouldn’t come to that, although that so often seems to be the only sort of avenue open to us, and it’s certainly the form our cultural imagination takes—movies and television shows and lots of fiction have slanted towards this end of the world, apocalyptic thinking, and in some things that leads to the possibility of a better society. Most television shows actually just use it as a way to reinforce the ideology we’re in, we have the apocalypse, society falls apart, and immediately all those things reassert themselves as if that were human nature and you can’t get away from it and so why bother, right? So I mean I’m very much against that sort of culture. But I mean the problem with that apocalyptic moment is that if that comes about because of, for instance, climate change, millions and millions of people, and mostly people in less developed countries who had far less to do with making climate change the case, are going to die absolutely needlessly. The danger of thinking in those apocalyptic terms is that I think we sort of excuse that suffering as necessary for change. And when we do that, it seems to me that we put ourselves in a situation where we are setting ourselves up to replicate what we’ve already done again. When we say that sacrifice was meaningful because that person died and now we have this opportunity then I think we set ourselves up to say: Well, sometimes people have to die or suffer needlessly so that the rest of us can get along, and that seems to put us right back where we are—Well, those people in that country, we can bomb them for the good of our gas prices or whatever it may be. So I don’t know, I think it’s a really complicated question. The idea of genuine change is so far from the horizon of our possibilities right now I think, unless we have this amazing moment when everybody could come together and say: Well, why don’t we do this differently. In one way it’s right there in front of us and in another it’s utterly distant. I’m committed to somehow trying to sustain hope that it’s possible though, even though it seems very far off.
BE: It’s incredibly frustrating to look at what we’re doing and sometimes one can feel very apathetic, but I go on recycling, eating healthy, trying to put good things in the world, trying to ask thoughtful questions and talk to thoughtful people like you so hopefully people do begin considering change or begin moving to it in some ways. Jeffrey, I really enjoyed this, thank you so much for taking the time.
JS: No, thank you, it’s my pleasure, this was terrific, thank you.
BE: Well, the book is “What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other” it’s very, very, very good, I suggest everyone buy it. And keep an eye out for Jeff’s poems in this issue of Fogged Clarity. Again, thanks so much Jeff.
JS: Thank you.