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Ben Evans: I’m Ben Evans and you’re listening to Fogged Clarity, this morning I’m pleased to spend time with the poet & author Paisley Rekdal. Rekdal is responsible for a book of essays, a memoir, and four collections of poems, including 2012’s Animal Eye—a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Prize—and Imaginary Vessels forthcoming in November of this year from Copper Canyon Press. Among her numerous awards are fellowships from the NEA, and the Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations, an Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and two inclusions in Best American Poetry. She teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Utah. Paisley, welcome, thanks for taking the time.
Paisley Rekdal: Thank you for having me.
BE: It’s a pleasure. Let’s go for big air: We see throughout your poems, a wariness of certainty, and of both the notion and stability of truth. What would you point to as the foundation of this suspicion; and do you think such suspicion grows in proportion to one’s intellect?
PR: That is an incredible question, and it’s a hard one to answer. I suppose an easy answer is also a complex one, which is my suspicion of a uniform narrative comes, I think, from being bi-racial, being aware of the possibility of being read two ways at one time depending on who’s looking at me; also being aware of two very wildly different types of family stories. But I think that that’s a starting point; I think being alive in the world and paying attention to your place in it also makes you aware of a multiplicity of narratives that make it very difficult to reconcile these things. So, for instance, I live in Utah, I live where there’s a lot of nature and the relationship that the animal and the human have in urban spaces is sometimes violent; its surprising, we live kind of on top of each other. So you’re always wondering how one set of decisions is going to effect, environmentally, a whole host of other lives potentially and vice-versa. So I think it’s the idea of narratives coexisting with each other, but of course, the more you read—anyone could experience this—whether you have an engagement with nature or you’re speaking about race in these particular ways, I think that there are so many ways in which any narrative gets automatically complicated that doubt and uncertainty seem to be the only places to reside in the world. Look at the people who seem most certain and how little we trust them.
BE: You make a good point. When humans are involved, I think certainty becomes far more suspect, but I do have an unwavering trust in the “isness” of nature and the natural world; a world which you devoted a lot of attention to in your last book, Animal Eye. It’s curious to note that most of the animals that appear in that collection are being observed in captivity; causing one to contemplate the forceful suppression of instinct and intuition. I wonder if, and how, you see such suppression occurring on a human level, particularly in this country, America?
PR: Yeah, I read a book many, many, many years ago, actually when I was at the University of Michigan, that talked about how you could tell a lot about a society by the way in which it created its zoos, not just its prisons, but its zoos. And this idea of forceful… the creation of spaces to preserve the illusion of the natural seemed to be very American vs. a lot of first-world nations where zoos try to create this idea of performing nature for people. And its easy to walk away from that and start seeing how we do that to each other. One of the reasons I was interested in talking about animals, and animals in particular, in captivity, is because a lot of the ways we talk about ourselves and talk about people we don’t don’t like in society–we use the lens of the animal to see those people and we describe ourselves and them as animals. And I think that you see that rhetoric coming out so much in the primaries now, I don’t think I’ve ever… I mean I’m 45, I just turned 45, I’ve never seen any rhetoric like this, to this extent, where people are dehumanizing each other to such an extent that we’ve turned each other into caricatures; and the corporatization also, I think, of the university system is increasingly turning certain types of intellectual spaces into places less of certainty and doubt, and into places of productivity and public utility. And I think that also has really devastating consequences. That has nothing to do with the animal world, but again this idea of encapsulating, putting things on display, putting things up for a kind of performance that is consumable, I think that’s permeated so much of our society and so many of the ways in which we see ourselves and each other, and even in spaces that would not normally be seen as entertainment spaces anymore, too, and I think that has devastating effects especially on our political rhetoric and our conceptions of self.
BE: I agree wholeheartedly. You know everything now seems to be a means for an end, and nothing an end in and of itself. Can you talk about the process of realizing yourself and your talent—not in the sense of the immense amount of work and discipline it certainly took—but in the sense of the courage it took to refuse convention, reject silence, and write candidly about sexuality, race, environmental degradation, and other subjects people, by and large, are reluctant to have honest discussions about.
PR: Well, I wish I was more honest, as I hear you describe this I feel like… I feel sometimes that writing poetry, it’s the thing that I love to do the most, but if you were to have an honest discussion about these things in a very public sphere perhaps poetry might not be the medium through which to do this, because it limits the conversation, unfortunately. And because poetry does like to dwell in doubt and uncertainty, I go back and forth. Sometimes I think: “ah geez it might be more important to argue whole-heartedly and full-throatedly for what I believe in,” but that of course is a political screed of its own sort, and so for that I’ll turn to non-fiction, I’ll write essays, or work on a blog or something like that.
But in terms of my poetry—there’s two ways to approach that question, I just did one way, but the second way is the aesthetic itself, which is, I think… right now were at a time in poetry where a certain type of plainspoken speech is no longer revered unless its accompanied by a kind of very deliberate, playful, willful irony at times, and that, I think, reflects a lot of how we have to live in a very technologically driven age, but I also think it is a way of avoiding certain subjects, the power of certain subjects, and not wanting to be seen as if we’re writing screed.
And I feel like I kind of hedged my bets a little bit with this book (“Animal Eye”), I mean I went as far as I could, but even as I was writing these poems I was thinking “oh I’m never going to get this book published, or if I get it published its going to be absolutely trashed,” because, I mean there is a long narrative poem, in terza rima of all things, about going to Lisbon and seeing this zoo and thinking about the Rodney King trials and this inter-racial relationship I was involved in at the time. Yeah, I mean in a way I’m doing the same projects now though, because the next book I’m working on is a series of poems that basically rewrites Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, and they are very narrative because I wanted to capture the spirit of Ovid’s tale; I wanted to have… I mean it’s a very narrative epic poem and the lyric part is where it unfolds and changes the perspective of who’s telling the tale, because sometimes you don’t even know whose telling it, and I found that this is a place where I’m thinking of metamorphoses as a site of radical social and environmental degradation. The collection actually opens with a poem I’m calling “Creation Story” in which a man is standing with his son and looking at these destroyed trees and the son calls them “the giants” but the father realizes that essentially they’ve killed off this natural landscape and how is he going explain to his son; what is the tale that he could tell that would somehow encapsulate or justify this? And the tale he imagines telling is supposed to be one of beauty and protectiveness, but the one that ends up being told is one of utter destruction and terror. And I feel like that’s something the space of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is allowing me to do a bit more, that very narrative impulse of trying to look at these things in a more direct way is something that I’m trying to do, but I don’t know if I’m always succeeding at it, because right now I feel aesthetically the pressure is perhaps not to be so bold in that respect. I can’t put it any better.
BE: You know, it’s so funny because everything in the poetic canon that we go back to is so narrative, yet we seem to have turned a blind eye towards it now, and I love narrative, I love being engaged in stories, especially in rich, fluent language. I love Penn Warren’s Audobon and to be honest with you I loved your long poem in Animal Eye, I actually just read that about the zoo in Lisbon, and you know, I followed it the whole way and there were flourishes of language that kept me engaged in addition to the narrative. I think if we really want to engage readers outside of a poetic sphere it is important to have some semblance of narrative going through our poems. I don’t know. Maybe that’s just because I like to write narrative.
PR: No, I think you’re right. I’m reading a book right now that’s called “Workshops of Empire” and it’s a fabulous book; it’s a scholarly study of how creative writing ended up in universities. And, you know, part of the distrust of narrative actually comes from the ways that creative writing ended up in universities. The man who wrote this book, Eric Bennett, he makes the argument that essentially it was new humanism and a sort of anti-communist cold war mentality that fostered some of the interest in having creative writing in classrooms, in universities, to sort of say we’re going to create good humans, we’re going to have good citizens, were going to create literature that is enriching and its going to demonstrate the moral, intellectual, and humanistic values that represent the West, and not the Soviet Union, and that was implicitly one of the arguments in the very first workshop starting in the thirties, I thought it was the GI bill but in fact it starts much earlier in the 30’s in Stanford and in Iowa, and this idea of using creative writing potentially as a space of propaganda, you know: “we’re going create literature that celebrates individualist human values but those individualistic human values have to go back to celebrating the United States, celebrating our cultural contribution.” I think we got smarter as writers and as students and we started to reject that a little bit, and narrative is one of the number one ways I think that happens, right, because narrative handled badly is also very easily turned into propaganda, you know here’s the beginning middle end, your going to identify with these characters, your going to follow them all the way through. And so I do think that some of the distrust of narrative for some writers out there, they might be feeling like this has been used actually against us and against a readership that might be more interested in political values that we’re not… you know, they should make up their own mind politically.
But then there is another group of students, and I see this with some of my undergraduate and graduate students, a real tendency to avoid narrative, or anything that approaches the personal or what they call the confessional, which I don’t think is actually confessional, and it’s because they don’t want to seem stupid, and that’s a completely different anxiety and one I really reject. I am with you a 100 percent, which is that I think there’s a lot of delight in narrative, and in fact I think you would be hurting a readership and hurting yourself to sort of deny the power of a well done narrative and the pleasure that can evoke in readers and also the way that can affect readers…. but again the political anxiety around narrative has a lot to do with: “who were our first teachers, who are the people who are teaching us to write in these forms, and what kind of implicit political agenda might have been at stake with that? So I think that, for me, as somebody who would not automatically be slotted into the white male canon, for me to write in narrative, I feel like that’s ok to a certain extent because I’m trying to be very clear about certain issues. I think bad writing about race often becomes racist writing and I feel like it’s very important for people when they look at me and they think of a sort of a post-modernist, fragmented self, because I’m bi-racial, I want to resist that, I’m like: I live a very cohesive and coherent, complex life but I don’t divide myself up into all these things. So for me narrative actually is a political stance, but not the same political stance that Robert Penn Warren would, say, have been thinking about.
BE: My partner’s a historian and as she reminds me: the winner’s write the history. And so I think that also makes some reticent of narrative. Well, I wanted to talk about Levis… Ah, let’s do that right now…
I returned to Levis’ essay “Some Notes on the Gazer Within” in preparation for our discussion today in which, among other things, he writes about the sterilization and homogenization of landscape and living, and how it encroaches on solitude and the imagination; and it allowed me to think about something: If so much of contemporary poetry is concerned with answering and opposing what Wallace Steven’s called “the pressure of reality”—inequality, money, racism, climate change—just to name a few such pressures; can we, as poets, really be genuine in lamenting their existence, given that they so often serve as the very foundation of our art?
PR: That is an amazing question and I don’t know if I can really answer that because you’re speaking about the essential hypocrisy of being an artist that, you know, is living a comfortable and middle-class existence that’s supported by a university that is invested in all sorts of things that I would personally divest from, but I don’t have control over those things. And it is this space in which the art itself, as it becomes more and more mandarin to the general populous, and then also the support for the art becomes more and more mandarin in terms of these incredibly byzantine and difficult fellowships to win and stuff like that, yeah—do we, is this the space, can we do it? I think it might be too easy to stand back and sort of sneer at the attempt knowing the artifice and capitalist system that goes behind it, but I don’t think poetry was ever innocent in that sense—patronage always existed or this was an art that was always written by the wealthy and I think if there is anything…. the numbers and the types of people who have access to writing, reading, and studying poetry is a far more diverse, varied, and democratic group than any other time in history and while we bemoan the support system for the art itself and the narrowness where that attention goes, I would also say that we have more possibilities and opportunities than ever before to disseminate work that can have that conversation. Again, it’s sort of like, you see the negative, yes, but you also have to weigh in, I think, a truly enormous positive where… I mean I have students that I’ve worked with that are the first person in their families to go to college. And that is no small thing. Some of them are women; some of them are women of color, and they may never write a poem again, they may not be interested in it, but they’ve been able to get into a space in which they can start to have larger conversations and address this issue of the reality that Stevens presents, like the ways in which poems try to react to, if they cannot counteract, they can at least react to. And at that point, I think, that is at least one more voice in the mix.
BE: Yeah absolutely, a room of one’s own, everyone needs a room of one’s own.
Well, Larry Levis, I know, is a poet who has been very important to you, and to so many poets I know. I’ve been reading Winter Stars and, although I swore I’d never return to it because of its bleakness, The Dollmaker’s Ghost recently, and one thing that continually strikes me about Larry is the command & authority in his voice, that upper register he achieves; I don’t question him, and would follow him anywhere he took me. I wonder if you can point to something from a craft standpoint Levis is doing that imbues his poetic voice with such authority, and makes it so difficult to refuse?
PR: Yeah, I mean Levis is a huge influence on me and I think partly there are two things from a craft standpoint that really spoke to me: one was his ability to marry a personal narrative with a very high lyric sensibility, that is also very European—he’s out of that tradition too, weirdly. And to get those things to work together, to be able to move from an individual to something that, I hate to use the term universal but I’ll just use it now, social—from a personal to a social movement within the same poem and I think partly that is achieved by the way in which he is able to play with the gaze of the poem. So for instance, I mean “Winter Stars” is filled with poems that do this, where he imagines his father and then he’s able to imagine from the perspective of one of the workers in the field with this father and he does that over and over again, it’s like he is able to inhabit multiple bodies at one time by moving the gaze of the poem through different sensibilities, different ideas. And by doing that I think it creates an extraordinary amount of empathy and it allows me to trust him more; even though I think a more cynical reviewer might say: well he’s manipulated all those gazes, they’re all still quote unquote him. But the attempt to do that, the attempt to stand outside the self and say that other realities can take place simultaneous with the self, I think, allows for a kind of authority at least through the sense that we can imagine he wants to think about other people, or he is at least trying to, makes it very different from say another poet that I admire very much, but who doesn’t do that, and that’s Sylvia Plath. Sylvia Plath does not tend to leave her perspective to imagine another perspective, the beauties of those poems are all about playing with the archetypal female mask, the persona she’s put on in that poem, and in inhabiting that thing beautifully, and its from that perspective that we begin to understand the social contract that makes femininity. But Levis does something very different and he’s always reminding us that multiple people stand, and multiple events stand, in a poem at the same time. And so to read one thing is to read multiple things, and it’s a completely different project but I love it.
BE: One certainly sees parallels between your work and Levis’—the careful, rich weaving of images; the effective and licentious narrative strategy that walks the tightrope between the surreal and real. I think both of these dynamics are really observable in your poem published recently in Poetry magazine, “The Wolves”. Would you mind reading that poem for us now?
I’d love to, thanks. (Reads “The Wolves”.)
BE: Geez, Paisley. That’s a phenomenal poem. Just the cadence, crushing the pills into juice, just that matter of fact turn, it’s a gut punch.
I’m so fascinated by that turn to the wolves after line 12–can you discuss the impetus behind this turn and talk about the metonymic function of the creatures in this poem?
PR: Yeah, so, this is one of those very few times when that actually happened. I was speaking with her, and my grandmother’s brain was just gone. She raised me essentially when I was a kid, my parents were working full time and so all my earliest memories are with her. And she always would tell these fabulous stories, she just had this great mind, she was a great reader. So one of the great tragedies was at the end of her life she had this brain tumor that just fried everything, you just never knew what was going to come out of her mouth. She had no sense of what was happening some times and then other times she was utterly lucid. So we were talking and I said something about: “Oh, what did you like about x?”, and she just started talking about these wolves that she’d seen on a mountain drive with her second husband and she just went on and on at length about seeing these wolves and then she fell asleep and then she came to and started talking about something else again. But I found myself fascinated by that, and the wolves, I mean, they do, serve a function, obviously, in the poem outside of the strange story, the surreal that comes in there, which is of course… It’s a sense of complete comfort and wordlessness as I call it. You said earlier the natural world is its “isness” and I think that was what she was, if I can ascribe any meaning to it, I think that’s what she was really responding to, she kept saying it was so peaceful and she kept talking about what the wolves look like and this idea of her… the other thing she described, she described driving past them and they just were in their own world and she was in her own world. And this idea of the wolves as this–and the wolf was suckling the cubs–this idea of a maternal animal figure like and utterly unlike her living in its own state and in a way that she could not effect. I can’t help but feel like there was something in her telling that story where she was trying to suggest that this was an idea about death that she might have, which is: at some point we’re just going to pass on, all we’re going to see is this scene, this beautiful scene that we can’t quite process, we can’t quite engage in and it’s still a miracle to see it. You know my grandmother… very fortunate she lived in Seattle and they have euthanasia there and she knew what the end was going to be, it was going to be painful and grotesque. So we went through the process of getting all the interviews done so she could basically commit suicide legally. And it was really fortunate, I mean it made something that… I’ve lived through the death of other grandparents and it’s just agonizing if you don’t have that choice. You get to a state where people are just in so much pain, and so it was great to see that she had something that was positive, but at the same time she was one of, she’s probably one of my favorite people ever, and you know when she died it was one of those things where you feel like you can grieve but you’re not really supposed to because it was a good death, she was 100. So, it was the best possible scenario for everything and still you feel gutted by it.
BE: Paisley, I’m sorry about your grandmother, but you have some great genes. You stay off those preservatives, you could go to 120.
PR: I know. I save a lot of money because I have a feeling it’s going to be me and a bunch of cockroaches at the end.
You know, I enter these interviews knowing full well the futility of productively discussing anything about the conception and realization of the subject’s art. Engaged in the act of “making”: when one is really creating: singing a song, painting a picture, writing a poem; I think the self is absent, the artist at that time simply a channel. Now, an artist certainly increases the potential for the channel to be opened and directed through rigorous training and craft, but the moment, or the coalescence of impulses behind it; we can never really talk about. Save to say transcend the ego, live well, and work hard, and you too may enact beauty. You know, most every Tuesday night, I go to watch this young sax player, Marcus Elliot’s quartet play in downtown Detroit. And two weeks ago between sets, after he just killed it, and I mean picked up the soprano sax for the first time I’ve ever seen him pick it up and blew pure fire for half an hour straight, I walked up to him, and I was a little drunk and just said, “How; wha–whaaa just happened?” And he looks at me and says: “I don’t know, man. It’s some spiritual shit.” And it’s true; that’s why art is so wondrous. And the best we can hope to do is tap into that.
Paisley, you know, I’ve been getting back to writing poetry seriously largely as a refuge from manipulation—to have a space in which I control entirely the input and the outcome of something and I’ve just been returning to my past and my history and literally all I have to do is document it, it’s all there. It’s all there. The wonder that exists in the reality of our everyday life is certainly fit material for good poetry. It’s just realizing it.
PR: Yeah. And it’s making people not afraid of it, too. I’m surprised how many of my students constantly are telling they’d like to write about something that happened in their childhood but they’re so afraid that somehow it will come out wrong—which I understand—but they’re afraid of offending people; they’re afraid of feeling the feelings again, they are afraid of all of this stuff. So a lot of… You know it’s funny, because it’s true, I think, we come in-built with wonder and if you spend your time in the world just paying attention to when you feel most alive you’re probably going to get something out of that, you’re going to tap into something. But most people I feel like they just stop feeling it because they don’t want to feel it, they’re too afraid. So most of my time as a teacher… Sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to get people to be less afraid and that’s too bad.
BE: It’s criminal. What is that? Why won’t we cross that threshold, and I mean I see it everywhere, you talked about the political process, but it’s this refusal of wonder and ecstasy and this insistence on comfortable patterns. I don’t get it. Don’t we know enough to escape that?
PR: I don’t know. I think there is just a deep distrust for those feelings. I think there is such a deep distrust for wonder because you can just hear somebody on Facebook immediately telling you: how can you feel wonder, look at what… what you’re really looking at is environmental destruction and degradation. The thing is you are looking at both those things but if you’re going to go out, you might as well go out singing. Like the end of that Robert Hass poem, right? And even he says: I distrust the desire to do it, but I can’t help but do it, I want to say it, and I’m going to sing it. And that’s the thing, you know both these things exist in the world at once and there’s a wonderful Jack Gilbert poem, and basically he makes the argument if you don’t have joy or laughter the devil wins. If you don’t spend time with some level of delight then none of the suffering makes any point, it just makes it far more brutal. And I think that’s true, both those things have to be held as possible truths, real truths and both have to be equally paid attention to.
BE: You’re absolutely right, and what a fine note to end on. I have been talking to Paisley Rekdal, her newest collection of poems Imaginary Vessels will be out November of this year from Copper Canyon Press. Thoroughly enjoyed this, Paisley. Thanks so much for taking the time.
PR: Thank you. Those were great questions.