SPORADICALLY-PUBLISHED "MAGAZINE" OF POETRY AND POETICS
Christopher W. Alexander and Linda Russo, eds.
Lauren Shufran: I suppose we'll begin the conversation with beginnings. One thing I find fascinating about your work is its perpetual re-presencing / re-presenting of these palpable images, and yet beneath them / coupled with them are these clearly very personal emotional undertones. In the essay "How did Emma Slide," you said the structure of your Emma Slide poem had discovered itself out of necessity, and in "The Uncontainable," you say "you are compelled to escape the predictable as it has come to limit your movement." Do you find most of your work begins this way, with the emotive? Are those emotions, or their catalysts, internal or external? And how does thinking about the poem as a social space help you make that movement from the emotive, a "springboard" for the poem, into something that will eventually be socially situated?
Kathleen Fraser: It's more complex than an "emotive" undertone, or a choice between "internal and external" . . . more like an undertow composed of visual or word cues that I find to be pulling at me - a subtle drag of attention towards an exterior image / word / subject that clearly flags ongoing internal questions of urgency that may have been brooding without conscious attention for some time. Learning to recognize that slightest tug of curiosity or urge is my workout - to make note of the tug and bring it consciously into the field of my attention . . . and then to return to it, to give it a body in language.
For example, WING - well, it's really complicated how it was written but the narrative of how it came together is perhaps worth describing. I'd been looking at these paintings by Mel Bochner, who was working at the American Academy while I was in Rome one spring. I'd met him and talked with him briefly a few years earlier in NYC, so when I went up to the AAR to hear him lecture, he invited me to come to his studio and see what he was working on. As it turned out, the paintings were variations on abstract cubes hurtling through space - white against black, or black against white . . . and there were some colored ones, too. I thought his paintings were interesting but I wasn't really compelled by them. Still, they made me curious and I admired them, intellectually.
Then a couple years later Mel did an installation in an apartment in Rome that had been used during WW II to house Gypsies, Jews and Communists - anyone the Facist regime saw as being an "outsider" or threatening to their political goals. Such people were imprisoned in this apartment for months, then eventually sent off to the death camps. Mel did an installation in this space - transformed after WW II into the Museo Storico della Liberazione di Roma - where he spread rumpled army blankets, like "canvasses," over the floors of three rooms and on each blanket constructed a six-pointed Jewish star of burnt match sticks. One was a mass of burnt matches piled within the outline of the star's six points; another was composed of triangles made from 365 burnt matches to mark the days of one year in the life of the prisoners held there. These pieces - ingenious geometric patterns - were, at the same time, carriers of grief, loss and fear. Their impact was extraordinary.
At that point, I had the two sets of images together in my mind - the cubes and the stars - and I really wanted to write about them, but I couldn't imagine how I was going to write about cubes? Then Norma Cole's book arrived in the mail. It was called MARS and in the middle of the cover was this very finely collaged piece by Jess - Robert Duncan's companion - and in the middle of that collage there was a griffin with a highly etched wing. When I saw that wing, it suddenly gave me my starting place and I began to write. But also in the background was the fact that Joe Brainard was dying of AIDS in NYC. Joe had been a friend of mine in the early Sixties whose collages and paintings I found intriguing - I still have a "flag & oranges" painting in my study that I bought from him in 1964. For many years, Joe's companion was Kenward Elmslie, whose wacky poems and libretti I loved, so when I went through NYC the next spring on my way to Rome I visited Kenward and we talked a lot about Joe, who was very ill in the hospital. So I had them both on my mind during the time I was writing WING - Joe was dying and Kenward was living and suffering. They both appear in this poem . . . they are the two men walking, their bodies & spirits changing form.
But what interests me, in retrospect, is that Mel Bochner's paintings and subsequent installation didn't come together for this serial poem until five years later. The abstract cubes were not, when first encountered, an obvious "emotive springboard" for me, yet they compelled my attention again after seeing the second work of his - the installation. Once I found my point of entry into this material, I was completely riveted . . . and all that I'd been carrying in me, that touched on living and dying, entered into it. Was I thinking about how my words would be socially situated? No. I worked in a kind of trance in which "out there" had no existence. Yet the poem, when finished, was clearly addressing the shared human situation of death, the breaking-down of matter and its concomitant rebuilding of the New. Was the double visual / political impact of these seemingly unrelated sets of images - their emotional unfolding in me over years - external or internal? Both, I think.
LS: So the page became a literal space and not one that was an abstract concept - a space as background for the printed poem?
KF: Exactly . . . "no ideas but in things" - the materiality of the page. When I came to writing the sonnet sequence "when new time folds up," its urgent and disintegrating form was dictated by the particular historic moment and the physical place in which I was living - Rome, May 1992. To begin with, the outside walls of our 19th-century apartment building were being blasted off and replastered every weekday from 8 am to 5 pm during the entire time we were there, from February through June. Also, these violently loud car sirens - remember that new toy? - seemed to be going off almost continuously, especially in the early morning hours. During this same interval, there'd been a major confrontation between Mafia forces controlling Sicily and the Italian judiciary determined to convict and imprison the most vicious bosses. Two major Italian judges and their wives were blown up by Mafia thugs and these murders took place near the Palermo airport the same day that I flew back into Rome from a poetry conference in Berlin. This seemingly unrelated cultural event carried a cross-current of violence, for we later learned that our conference had taken place in the very same lodge on Lake Wansee (outside Berlin) where, "the final solution" had been deliberated. It was not strange, then, that those terrifying forces began to enter my dreams.
I suddenly knew how I wanted to construct those sonnets - to have the exploded matter of our literal building, as well as pieces of European history, falling outside of the poem's body. It felt as if my entire life were breaking into little pieces. I could no longer avoid violence in my work. I decided to work on fourteen "sonnets" of 13 & 1/2 lines each, figuratively using the last half of the fourteenth line as material falling into the right margin of the poem. I wanted to embody the chaos, disintegration and fragility that marked my life all that spring and to focus on the visual shattering in the right margin as leftover language and fragmented response to the solid sonnet's more substantial historic claims.
When I came to the problem of titling them, I decided to pull a line from the 13 lines to act as both title and repeating musical phrase inside the poem's body so that the repetition of sound would be contained and repeated within that particular unit. This repetition helps to nail down the swift wall of sound, even as the lines themselves are moved along by peculiar syntactic hinges. I think that line repetition helps to create what you have called "the silence that moves," for it gives the reader a moment of pause and recognition in which to hold the line - already taken-in as both familiar and de-familiarized in its new context.
LS: Many of your poems end with a sudden distention of time: "The decision" ends: "She watched them closely during the following year and was able to make several startling decisions with split-second timing;" "this. notes. new year." ends "Next year, it's snowing;" "One of the Chapters" ends "as her velvet dress becomes smaller and smaller and her father forgets her." It is as if the poem is actually trying to spring itself into the world / the future upon completion. There exists also, in some works, a pushing back into the past: "Etruscan Pages" ends "Before that / dancers;" "A Little Background: the Sisters" ends "you may have known me. Once. / Once could." ) This does not arrive for you as a question of how the poem will move into and situate itself in the world?
KF: The question arrives as a personal grammar, a way of locating skepticism towards aspects of the social world via peculiar diction. That particular poem, "A Little Background: the Sisters," is related to a very early poem called "Change of Address" which refuses a simplified, socially constructed identity, not wanting to be pinned down too easily to a neatly defined - i.e. static - set of personality traits . . . you know, this is who you are, this is how you are. Well, I may have been there once, I might pass through there again sometime, but don't pin me down (laughter).
It’s primarily an evasion of temporal constraint assumed from the outside; in this sense, my poetry has always been - in part - a resisting response to the social world as rule-giver and value enforcer, at least in my refusal to be limited by particular codes proposed as the current norm. This detour has made its way through my poetry since the mid-Sixties . . . you might say that syntax and ideas of construction have provided me with tools to evade the consolation of the over-simple . . . and have helped to locate my skeptical reading of the givens by way of an erratic diction that speaks for that perspective.
My poems have often given me a way of evading any social space that threatens to be groggy or overly-prescriptive. There has clearly been some satisfaction in moving out-of-sync - i.e. sinking below the horizon of an organized past, present, or future tense within a particular sentence. The imagination is pulling one’s sense of time forward, or backward, but the poet must disrupt words’ relations to locate the new reality of that shift.
LS: I know I’ve found for myself that there is often a shift in focus, or expectancy, when nearing the end of a piece, and how will this finalize itself - and I saw that here - that there’s this temporal shift, so quick, and then it’s over.
KF: So it happens without your having planned that.
LS: Yes, well not consciously, I suppose.
KF: It’s what happens with mine, for sure. Because when you think of a plan - as when one thinks of a Shakespearian sonnet, where the last two lines take a turn and reflect back on the poem - a change of time or perception does take place, but that shift is built into the convention. Adhering to a conventional formal model can be an interesting device, however, because it captures or initiates a changing perspective that is clearly useful to move one’s expectations around at the end of a seemingly completed investigation, a sort of opening-the-door so that you don’t get stuck in an oversimplified place.
So even though we may not want to be told that we must follow a certain model of writing, the choice to adhere to prescribed rules has, in fact, produced various brilliant works. The point is to invent one’s own snaggy compositional ideas - allowing them to be suggested by the material being investigated. So the rules of organization are often part of how you find your poem.
LS: Back to your sonnets from WHEN NEW TIME FOLDS UP, that adhered to the parameters of the traditional sonnet only in that they had approximately fourteen lines, with words that seemed pushed or thrown out forcefully at the margins of each. They seem related in their concerns to Barbara Guest’s “novel” or something like Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets, an extension of those “fixed” parameters, undercutting the expected to reveal the capability of altering / renewing boundaries. Do they begin, for you, as such? A “generic link” to the lyric poem, but its movements from such parameters showing the urban life of interruption, such as that in Berlin . . . maybe the spirit of interruption into form?
KF: Yes, I like your phrase "interruption into form" . . . it is, in part, the recognition that the existing conventions of "formal" beauty will no longer do for the war-torn psychological continuum in which we have lived since the late Sixties. The old containers can only represent a kind of safe tedium and exhaustion and are without convincing energy. It is interesting to find ways of expressing the break-down of a city - its nervous system, its rooted assaults, the disintegration of the exteriors of buildings . . . surfaces peeling and cracking and shedding . . . graffiti winning over nobility of architectural forms and the violation of cities by greed.
Living in Rome has put a speed and pressure behind the lines of those urban sonnets, probably more violent than what one finds in Guest's more reflective tones. I needed to let the assault of the contemporary world come through me and into the sound and piling-up of this particular sequence. Murder was in the air, and it was palpable.
LS:But what about process? This breaking down, the interruption, the assault - there are ways of both working it into and wresting it out from the text - yes, beginning with a blank page and writing "in" the interruption, but also using methods of extraction, "un-writing," or taking the writing itself as is and breaking it up from there.
KF: Last spring, a different "interruption into form" happened in the process of writing/constructing my recent book, HI DDE VIOLETH I DDE VIOLET (Nomados Press, Vancouver, 2003). The outbreak began from a text I wrote while trying to amass a somewhat detailed record of what was going on during an Easter/Passover holiday in the Roman countryside, within the ambience of an Italian family I've known very well and have spent Easter weekends with for years. I kept working and revising this text until finally I had to put it aside. It was too "good," you know, so finished and tucked-in that it erased the sense of violation and loss that had flooded my psyche the entire spring. The war was going on, four of my friends had died in the last three months, another was recovering from a stroke, and it just felt as though everything was breaking apart and had holes in it. You couldn't count on anything, everything was being pulled out from under . . .
LS: And here you were, holding this finished thing . . .
KF: Yeah, there I was, trying to hold everything together in the poem and make it cohere. Meanwhile, my artist friends in Rome had been preparing for a group show at an architectural school in a big old palazzo near-by. I was excited about what was going on, but I was also a bit envious because I wanted to be making something visual, too. But all I had was my words. One morning I suddenly decided to "blow-up" my text into such large type that it could only be viewed as material - alphabet, letters, words. Then I cut apart the enlarged poem text and, over the next week, made wall-pieces more like objects - individual visual moments I could find inside the rejected text. I composed against the backdrop of this white throw rug on the floor of my study, using it as if it were my canvas, and started making what I thought of as word objects. Pages.
LS: Do you find that having an emotional place to touch down on in your work allows for a different sense of - I guess I'll call it "ownership" - than, say, MacLow's or Cage's chance-generated compositions? This question about whom the poem 'belongs' to once it's arrived into the world in printed form (or even simply vocalized). Does it belong solely to itself? Or do you find it varies in your work, depending on the way in which it arrived for you, the process of the piece, how effort-ed/less it felt while in the works...or any number of things, really?
KF: The emotional trace of writing is more evident in my work than what goes on in chance-generated composition because there is a different level and method of investigation going on vis ‡ vis one's on-going history in argument with one's current level of perception.
Claims of ownership re. one's own "made thing" are often fairly unexamined, felt more strongly perhaps in earlier stages of one's writing career. At that point, "ownership" is a fairly naive position. As you become a more sophisticated, less easily-satisfied writer, deeply committed to the stunning possibilities of both the revision process and the reconstruction of received ideas for making the poem, you begin to understand this writing work as part of a larger conversation in which you are attempting to contribute the clearest yet most unexpected results of your private writing practice.
LS: Apropos of this notion of the "I," I'm thinking of the differences between your older works (namely NEW SHOES, published 25 years ago) and your newer works (namely WHEN NEW TIME FOLDS UP (1993) and WING (1995)). There seems to be a distinct movement from the emotive "I," which is very often present in NEW SHOES, and a different kind of "I" (or no "I" at all) in the latter pages of IL CUORE - at one more remove from the poem itself. Do you find that the "I" has changed for you over the course of your career - the psychological pull it has for you, or the way you feel it works as speaker / subject?
KF: NEW SHOES, from the mid-Seventies, intended to open away from the simple subjective or "emotive I," yet often used that pronoun. After years in NYC during the Sixties, in the company of so many innovative thinkers, I began to feel bored by, and increasingly wary of, "I" as a one-shot narrating identity position. I began to see how swiftly a pronoun's presence changed with the demand of its context. When "I" appears now, it's simply a location, from which a work may begin to unfold, but it inevitably translates into multiple and shifting voices.
LS: Back to this question of resistance, in your essay "On the Line," you ask "What if the subject, itself, is resistance?" Also it's the first word in Peter Quartermain's introduction to IL CUORE . Are there any specific works in which this is true for you and - I guess this goes back to the question of necessity - that were written purely from the need to resist?
KF: I think quite a few were begun from a position of refusal of the status quo - certainly a kind of resistance to being told how one ought to be writing or what current "hip" thing was now replacing all others - a phenomenon I've lived through various versions of since the Sixties. I've always been interested in "the new," but if I begin to feel pushed-on by a codified version of it, I tend to revert to a skeptical mode - often, in a somewhat playful guise. I suppose that skepticism has been my way of giving myself some space in which to question an idea that, while potentially interesting, is not going to automatically wow me.
One piece I wrote around the winter holidays (1979) - "this. notes. new year." - was intended as an exploration of this kind of quizzicality, speaking from several voices trying to work through a private struggle within a community ethos . . . or, my resistance to a certain programmatic conception of writing that had appeared to commandeer my writing community at that moment. There was a strong territorial claim in the air and with it came an implied message to (re)conform.
Writing "this.notes. new year." in shifting prose-time - in sentence fragments that stretched to left and right margins - gave my psyche the freedom to locate my own questions and to note the condition of ambivalence I felt was so central to my survival. I needed to claim provisionality as a "good" and to put the hex sign on any prohibition. Thus, the mocking line: "I sentence you."
LS: So it's not so much resistance as it is skepticism? Because resistance exists on the spectrum in a space much more radical than questioning or skepticism. It becomes a question of direct opposition versus a rupture - a coming from within versus a coming up against.
KF: Yes, well during the serious struggles of the Seventies and Eighties, I was trying to sort out the troubled relation between my feminist perceptions re power relations and my intense interest in innovative writing. I mean, both were actively present, forming and informing my questioning of everything . . . .except that I didn't want to get into any sort of prescriptive language or attitude in my poetry. I've never liked prescriptive poetry of any kind. It usually results in a lot of repetitive phrase-making where the "I" is positioning itself as hero/ine . . . too much melodrama and not enough of being able to separate that from what's being questioned.
LS: In your introduction to TRANSLATING THE UNSPEAKABLE, you talk about the "perception of non-presence," a "non-presence" which later becomes the pre-established precedent - the "world of the already claimed." I'm reminded of H.D.'s "returning Eve" [from? clarify] - coming back to re-claim / re-make her identity. Did you feel this was one of the goals of HOW(EVER) - to allow women to move past this perception of non-presence?
KF: Yes . . . you could call that a primary force moving the project. This "non-presence" was always palpable and evident, increasingly so as I became a conscious and questioning person working inside of social structures, i.e. classroom gender behaviour, meetings manipulated to deny significance to particular equity issues, and the overwhelming awareness of the erasure of major modernist women writers in anthologies and textbooks from curricula and reading lists - that all-pervasive, dismissive and authoritative attitude coming from many of the more powerful editors and poets (usually male, before the Seventies), who denied women a serious place in the conversation about writing.
It became glaringly real and took - takes - a lot of thinking and sorting through to understand what's going on, and not to let it undermine you completely. Men historically have enjoyed an intellectual battleground of arguing and taking theoretical positions - they've had a built-in social permission to do this. There's no anguish involved at a subconscious level, no checking out "am I allowed to speak?"
Women writers, on the other hand, began entering the critical community focused on modernist practice only since the Seventies. HOW(EVER) editors saw the gap and built the bridge - initiating a direct conversation between new scholars and the women poets writing a more investigative, more innovative work. A number of other women-edited journals and book projects followed suit and helped to introduce the work of women writers into contemporary "critical discourse." I remain convinced that this effort needs regular tending, thus the emergence in 1998 of an evolved electronic version, HOW2, currently being edited by a revolving group of younger women writer/scholars. This was definitely a move beyond non-presence.
[ED. NOTE: for more on HOW(EVER) as a remedy to androcentric experiences such as that of Fraser in the late 1960s and 1970s, see Fraser's "The tradition of marginality . . . and the emergence of HOW(EVER)," in TRANSLATING THE UNSPEAKABLE, pp. 26-38 - in particular, her witness of Barbara Guest's exclusion from the 1970 map of New York School poetry presented in the collection edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, AN ANTHOLOGY OF NEW YORK POETS (New York: Vintage); see also "Barbara Guest: The location of her (A memoir)" in the same book, pp. 124-30.]
LS: Well it's not just about non-presence due to being overlooked; it's a reality, imposed by others rather than self-imposed, somebody expending the energy to make sure you are not present.
KF: One reinforces the other. The phenomenon of neglect was definitely real, in this case erasing a poetry that didn't quite suit the reigning court agreement. It was privately acknowleged by several of the younger men around Kenneth Koch that he had asserted his influence in this particular choice.
In the mid-Seventies, SEEKING AIR (Black Sparrow, 1978) finally got its first and only review by Jim Brodey, published in the POETRY PROJECT NEWSLETTER. He basically didn't get it. He said poets shouldn't write novels. That was it. I disagreed and began teaching Guest's innovative novel with a vengeance - together with her poetry - in any seminar where I could comfortably fit it in and my students became very interested in it. Guest's "postcards" and an essay on "The Mysterious" appeared in HOW(EVER) (v.III. n. 3., 1986). Soon after, I was invited to write an essay for an anthology on women's experimental fiction, called BREAKING THE SEQUENCE (Princeton UP, 1989). They suggested that I write on the well-known, rather mainstream book HOUSEKEEPING, but I asked if I might substitute Guest's SEEKING AIR as my choice. The academically-oriented editors hadn't heard of it and were, at first, upset that there were no citations or footnotes. But they finally agreed to let me try a version when I explained that there were no critical sources from which to quote. In the period that followed, a few young women scholars began to pay attention to SEEKING AIR and other poetry collections by Guest. In 1997, Sun and Moon did a reprint of the novel. Now Guest is on the map . . . and will remain there.
So yes, that's what HOW(EVER) was about - not just about bringing attention to contemporary women writing outside of the box, but also attending to the lost modernist figures from the Twenties through the Fifties, women poets and experimental prose writers who just weren't part of the official reading picture during that period.
LS: So just as this writing about Guest needed to happen to reaffirm her place, HOW(EVER) was not just about women writing poetry, but focused as much on women writing about writing.
KF: Correct . . . about re-presencing.
LS: Do you think error is one of the major risks one takes in becoming present?
KF: It's not the error as such, but the inclusion and the investigation - or acceptance - of error as part of being human, part of the material of what one can write about as interesting evidence of the imagination's willfulness and randomness.
What I've been interested in is working towards a recognition and inclusion of imperfection as interesting data - the "typos" and interstices between nuggets of brilliantly-spun argument, the unplanned doubt breaking step and blurting itself out between one correct grammatical construction and the next. What about hesitancy when you can't quite get to what you want to say because you're so conditioned to being judged as beside-the-point? You remember that moment in the classroom or after a public event where everyone is invited to talk or ask questions when the speaker or the poet has finished their presentation, and you are filled with response and want to say something but are caught in hesitation, wondering if you'll be able to get the words up and out in a reasonable way? It's that conflict, that uncertainty that I find so interesting and so difficult.
LS: In "Five letters from one window," I was particularly interested in a section from a letter to Andrea: "I'm trying to find a way to include these states of uncertainty, the shifting reality we've often talked about, fragments of perception that rise to the surface . . . Why deny this partialness as part of our writing?"and later, "We need to be able to map how it is for us, as it changes." In your essay "Line. On the Line.," you begin by considering the line as the "(visible notation of) the moving path of a poet's discovering intelligence." Of course error is a part of this: the poem as an entity parallel to the life / mind of the poet in that place. How do you find your poems have been able to situate themselves, knowing they've been a part of this "discovering intelligence," in a specific space of time? Are they difficult to come back to, to keep alive?
KF: For me, returning to them is not a problem, since I continue to be interested in the moving path . . . rather than any conclusion / resolution tentatively arrived at.
LS: Apropos of this error question: in "Faulty Copying," you talk about error as eruption, and eruption as change of pace - much like the visual proof or pace of the moving mind, "the gestate," the interruption of life.[ED. NOTE: see "How did Emma Slide? A matter of gestation (1979) in TRANSLATING 39-44.] Also in NEW SHOES (1978), in the poem "Notes to Lyn, Shimmin Ridge, Two Years Later," there is the line "I do not look for anything ahead of time." Pages later, in "The Know," you say "All that / calls for absolute attention / at each moment separate / Being in the now is not / what they called "the know" or is it," which circles back to this notion of allowing the text to mirror uncertainties. Errors often occur when we are not directly focused / immersed in what we're doing. Might you be suggesting a new lexicon, error as political act, the feminine "Language of Errancy?"
KF: Aptly put . . . its inclusion is a political act - the refusal of perfection's status-quo. For me it's not the "error" itself, but rather the condition, recognition & inclusion of error as legitimate linguistic gesture - inside the poem . . . that is my point. Taking on the unexamined. Error may equally be the token of any nurturer or person pressed by an over-committed agenda. But its deletion as gesture is what is under scrutiny here. I like your phrase "Language of Errancy." Sounds like a great book idea.
LS: I'm interested in how you undo the meanings of words. I'm thinking of your poem "What I Want" and another poem, written years later, "when new time folds up," in which single words are repeated in variable contexts - much like Lyn Hejinian's MY LIFE. The visual word remains stable on the page, the experience of it constantly changing, uprooting (or "crumpling," a word you use often in "when new time folds up"). There is a silence created in the undoing of the word - even if there is no physical space for silence on the page, there is silence of another kind. And it's this silence that moves. How does this effect the way words get comfortable on the page for you? Or, obversely, the way they are able to remain in motion?
KF: I'm intrigued by the fact that you noticed the word "crumpling," and my use of it in "when new time folds up," I'd completely forgotten that word, I wasn't even aware of it being in there.
LS: "Heartbeat crumpled neatly on white card," "Crumpled uniform heap."
KF: Hmmmm . . . it clearly comes out of some way I'd experienced phenomena. But it seems that I've forgotten . . . my memory is crumpling . . . (laughter). I don't really know when or if words ever got more "comfortable" on the page. It's not a way I'd characterize my experience of placing words in relation to each other, perhaps because I'm always trying to disrupt comfort in my writing practice and to flee the familiar literary measures introduced into my ear by my Scottish/ English father . . . also from those King James cadences that we memorized and said around the breakfast table. They seemed very natural to my ear until I began wanting to write my own poetry. Then I very much needed to shed the music of the King's English, yet I kept finding that it was bullying me, pressing those "fearful symmetries" into my lines, even after I fled to NYC after graduating college.
I'll probably never escape the love of compressed sound, but I've certainly done a lot of work to get out from under the clamp and the musical thump I can recognize as pushing on me, wanting another syllable or forcing a certain sound to complete itself. I've tried, over the years, to flatten out sounds, or extend them beyond their early habits, making them stretch and continue instead of being satisfied exclusively with that kind of swift, brilliant, beautiful music.
"What I Want" - originally published in 1973 as a single poem, in a first big collection of the same title - was written with great swiftness and no preconceived structure. It began as a love poem of skepticism, in which I soon began repeating & recycling certain words - "solution," "holes," "coming" - in revised musical combinations. The line "when my back is turned" showed up three times and began to nail down a particular tone and claim. I liked the idea of the hotel as the site of difficult love and the way recombinant words and phrases both ducked and inhabited the shifting meanings of that hotel.
The recycling of words was my "instinctive" way of employing a rather traditional lyric strategy in the service of a somewhat wary view of "romantic" attachment. At the time of that writing, I'd been reading Arthur Koestler and an essay by Jane Cooper in tandem, and they somehow opened a floodgate of memory in me which provoked a rush of writing. It was as if I were hanging-on, for much of the night, to a swiftly moving vehicle propelling me through language combinations that kept suggesting themselves for hours. I was writing things down as fast as they came up in my mind, shaping a number of small & intentionally odd poems from this initial outpouring.
LS: You just briefly touched on the lyricism of the King James Bible; I'm curious about the effect of your father's profession. You say your father's love of literature and the pleasure he expressed when sharing it with you is a happy memory. What about the effect of his language of preaching? You're talking about your love of pure sound, which is clearly in the works you've mentioned as well as inherent in your own published writing. But the lexicon of the ministry is generally used for other purposes - a different kind of salvation, I guess. The need for it to be euphonic, etc., is not as pressing . . . or different things are pressing. Did this effect the ways in which you learned language could be utilized?
KF: You know, I just sat there and sort of canceled-out when my father was giving the sermon - the teaching - because I was bored and also I disliked being on display in the front row of church as the "minister's child." I had no choice, really. Still there were hymns in which the music and lyrics moved me greatly, even when very young - "Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide," etc., with the music behind it, so compelling and noble. It didn't feel like the usual limits of "church," but more like the great human challenge, you know? On which side of the question are you going to fall? Will you put your ideas and your life out there, for what you believe, or are you just going to crumble under pressure? And there were others I loved for their atonal music . . . "Be thou my vision." Have you ever heard that one?
LS: No, I haven't.
KF: My sisters and brother and I used to sing the good ones in harmonies that we improvised. I could sing one to you now but I don't want to perform them in Malvina's coffee-house . . . (laughter). At home, my same father - the one who had to speak formally in church - was full of playful invention, games and challenges. In school, he trained to be an architect and was very political, with a young man's earnest communist commitment to the poor. Much like Oppen, he experienced the breadlines of the Depression as a kind of direct spiritual summons to action. For him, there was a striking model for this in the life of community service, so he returned to theological seminary in Chicago in the mid-Thirties to train professionally as a Presbyterian minister. But the irony was that his love of language prohibited his practice of the commonly adopted preacherly effects you've imagined.
I think it must have been a very difficult path for him to follow, for he was most essentially a writer and an artist. At home he was an extremely playful person, always teaching us cheerful and silly songs and reading aloud the nonsense poems from the classical British children's literature . . . probably where his influence on my writing began. Whereas the church milieu mostly produced a resistance in me to tailoring myself to others' expectations. I'm sure that it shaped how I think about writing - in the sense of limits I'm trying to go beyond.
LS: Eileen Gregory (in her essay "A Poetics of Emerging Evidence: Experiment in Kathleen Fraser's Poetry") writes of the poet as a scientist/ observer, establishing a laboratory space, and the poem as "evidence" within the imagined parameters. I'm thinking of certain titles of yours - "Notes preceding trust," "Little Notes to You, from Lucas Street," "Notes re: Echo," "this. notes. new year." - and in the newly-released DISCRETE CATEGORIES FORCED INTO COUPLING (Berkeley: Apogee, 2004), the final serial poem "AD notebooks" - that adhere to this suggestion of notations of evidence. Your essay "The tradition of marginality" ends: "from that edge or brink or borderline we call the margin, we are able to create another center - a laboratory in which to look at the unknown elements we suspect are there." Perhaps this laboratory is much like the one you invent in "To book as in to foal. To son," the cleared silent space where everything is put away to make room for the writer and the writing. Is this laboratory space, then, a "nothing space?" Do the parameters arrive with the poem?
KF: The laboratory is a work space in which to look closely at the evidence you've assembled. I cannot conceive of a "nothing space," but perhaps it is like a large internal screen continuously being filled with the writer's bits of thought, overheard speech, observation - all somewhat loosely and raggedly noted but not, as yet, brought into any kind of focus or coherence. The evidence is there, waiting, until some word or physical response brings one's focus to the screen - thought hunts and selects and assembles language and a shape begins to build, whose edges might describe a parameter. In that sense, you are on the mark . . . that the parameters arrive with the poem's gradual assemblage.
LS: What about this notion of the "zero starting place"? Olson writes to Cid Corman to think of a poem as "nothing else but that / which you are sure of . . . that we / begin with ZERO." Then "that which you are sure of" might only be your own uncertainty? Your poem "Cue or Starting Point" presented a text in which the same subject was arrived at many times over, each time with a new approach, each time written of differently. The last line of that same poem is "not finished." Do you find this is similar to that place you clear to make room for the empty page, a literal "zero" in which to begin thinking again?
KF: It's related, in the sense that any dedicated bit of space one consciously clears for a fresh entry into writing is related. It can be named "zero" or "the empty page." In "Cue," the zero point was located in a cold empty stretch of winter sky in Rome, across which swallows darted. Preceding this sighting, I'd visited a show of drawings and soft plastic, stapled structures whose accompanying notations caused me afterwards to newly pay attention to the birds, trees, and clouds contained in the "zero"that had been there all along. I just hadn't focused my attention in quite this way to see them, even though I'd obviously looked at the sky and the trees and birds many times each day all that winter. I decided to work as if drawing in a sketchbook, doing notation on the same sky space, again and again to find out what might enter or reveal itself, returning to the same starting point of bird, cloud, tree . . . to see the details of what was right there in front of me. That simple.
LS: What about your use of the personal letter? It re-emerges in so many of your works and acts as further evidence of what is happening in the poem, while also working within a voice that can feel less formal, more comfortable. What I find interesting about the letter is its one-sidedness, not leaving room for interruption by the receiver, and that, as a means of communication, once it has been opened, will be read entirely (we are, after all, curious people [ do you mean to say "we" as in you two? or simply that "people are curious"?). There's also a shift within the reader to a sort of voyeuristic exhilaration. How do you feel the addition of the letter changes the poem for you?
KF: Interesting that you think of letters as one-sided, in the sense of there not being an answering response from the receiver, i.e. a dialogue. Early on, letters were a natural place for me to begin from a state of isolation or disconnection, simply to get the writing started, by addressing an/other when I wanted to write and couldn't. I addressed friends with whom I had an on-going mental conversation, whose presence pulled material and observation from me that I might not get to on my own. When I wrote the sequence "Five Letters from one window, San Gimignano, May 1981" - the only poem-letters I can think of that could possibly cause "voyeuristic exhiliration" - I'd consciously set a problem for myself: to sit at the same place in front of a window as the light changed between 4 and 7:39 p.m., writing as many letters as I could in that time. I wanted to see what would arrive in this space and to use the notes as starting points for gathering materials called forth by the particular nature of each friend I addressed - in this way framing from different physical and speculative angles the new place in which I found myself. In that sense, the other person was very much there - in my mind - as the "evoking spirit."
LS: One of the most interesting lines for me in the "Etruscan Pages" sequence is "attributing value to retrieval," as it acknowledges the fact - and the subject - for both its original and secondary worth: "where something did exist once / and may again." This brings me back to HOW(EVER) , a re-working from the male-dominant world of theory and poetics into a female perspective. In the essay "The Blank Page: H.D.'s Invitation to Trust and Mistrust Language," you talk about "the urgency of articulating another reading of (the Etruscan culture) in the face of all the officially recognized studies preceding me." You also mention that this work intentionally acknowledges D.H. Lawrence's travel narrative ETRUSCAN PLACES, even sofar as to choose a title that clearly references his. Similarly, H.D.'s "made religion" in TRILOGY acknowledges a number of religious figures from various cultural texts written by men. Do you think this textual acknowledgment (rather than simply trusting the history of the subject to remain as background) is necessary in order for that conversation / alternative vision to happen on the page?
KF: I'm not sure about the assumption made in your phrase "trusting the history of the subject to remain as background," if that "trust" has contributed to the kind of blur or erasure that has impaired our collective reading experience. For me, it was necessary to allow the working-through of this relation to Lawrence as evidence of my own shifting understanding.
When we began living in Rome in the Eighties, I became very aware of the Etruscan presence there but kept putting off a trip to the various sites and ruins as "a good cultural project" to pursue when my friend Susan came to visit. I decided this would be the right time to take a car trip to visit several of the known tomb sites.
We visited three quite
different sites up on the Maremma coast, north of Rome, during a long
leisurely day. Two of them were known to Lawrence and written about by
him - Tarquinia and Vulci. But the third, Norchia, had remained largely
unknown by the public and had been suggested by an archeologist colleague
of my husband's. We knew it was off a little road stretching between Tarquinia
and the next inland city - a line from A to B - but as we drove along
the road, looking for this place, we couldn't find it. Some forty minutes
later, at the outskirts of the next city, we turned around and started
back, carefully checking every little off-turn. Finally, coming from the
original direction, we saw a rusty piece of metal with "olis"
written on it, hanging from an old post to the side of the road you couldn't
have seen, coming from the original direction, because it was only painted
on one side. We deduced that this fragment was the remains of the original
sign for "necropolis,"so we turned there and drove down a gravel
road, with no further indication of anything in the neglected fields.
Finally we saw a farmer on a tractor and asked him for directions. He
pointed us to a next crossing where we turned and kept going down a narrow
dirt road. Then I saw something in the distance that looked like Roman
My companions went off to look for further ruins, but I remained behind to look at the double-level tombs. I was struck by the palpable presence around me and had a brief disconnection from where I was - an extended moment, or a kind of dropping through. You could feel an immense power there. It seemed clear to me that I'd never be able to write about this, it was too outside of language. Eventually they returned and we scrambled back up the path and drove to check out a few more sites indicated by our map, coming across a country lodge near Vulci that we believed to be the same one Lawrence had written of (with its welcome fireplace and "roasted meats"). By then it was mid-afternoon and we were starving, so we settled for a wild boar pasta and returned to Rome.
I didn't want to talk
much about that day, to trivialize it - it was so deep in all of us, in
different ways. But I did start reading more about the Etruscans and returned
to the Villa Giulia, a wonderful museum in Rome that houses - among many
major artifacts - the most important examples of Etruscan writing, one
source of words pressed into a thin sheet of beaten gold. Writing was
also carved more crudely into the many burial stones collected there.
After a couple weeks I began writing, and got so involved in the shapes
of the letters that I was drawing my own little alphabet . . . sort of
like a child making up a code. We found that a former tenant had left
a paperback of ETRUSCAN PLACES inside one of the closed bookshelves in
our apartment, but I didn't want to read it until I had the first draft
of my own version in place. Lawrence had hovered as one of those huge
male totems in my early reading life and I didn't want his influence anywhere
near my mind while I was writing.
My final text turned out to be a poem of deep grieving for the loss of a culture and the loss of a language . . . also, in current time, marking the departure of my friend whose presence I missed while living in Italy. I found, as I did more and more research, that the reason we don't have many remains of the Etruscan language is that much of it had been written on wooden tablets, subsequently destroyed by fire, as had the metal writing tablets melted down for weaponry by the Romans who had conquered this extraordinary, artistic and sensuous people. When I stood before the few hundred words remaining - incised on the thin gold sheet that hung on the wall of the Villa Giulia - I was mesmerized . . . the Etruscan writing was so beautiful. I copied the letters and words, verbatim, into my notebook - from the gold page and from the dedications carved into the burial stones - and put them physically into my poem. In the middle of the letter to Susan, I drew the gold page with the nail holes in it, and in the Norchia section I included drawings of their alphabet and of the shape of the lintel through which we "entered" their tombs.
In truth, I was glad that Lawrence's handprints had not been left at Norchia - the particular place that had been so central to my experience of the sacred. I wanted to feel that I could enjoy his work, yet not be overwhelmed or pre-empted by it, in the sense of these sites being his exclusive territory because he'd been there and written about it - famously - half a century earlier. I decided to interweave a few of his phrases into my text, things we'd both noticed in particular; and to acknowledge his presence there and his writing about it, rather than succumbing to a feeling of prohibition I might have felt as a later arrival under the shadow of the great man who'd already been there.
Acknowledging Lawrence's presence before mine, turned out to be the most natural thing. I wasn't interested in erasing or denying his experience but in adding my own voice and set of notations / meanings to this particular on-going conversation. I felt, in a way, that I was talking to him.
LS: One of my favorite poems of yours is "La La at the Cirque Fernando, Paris." You talk of its process of becoming in your essay "Faulty Copying," the originating error you chose to keep and expand from, in effect providing La La with a code as she found her speech. What I found fascinating upon re-reading it was that the first error occurred in the section in which La La said "Begin," her initial command to Fernando. Error became, then, a starting point (that springboard again), an entry into the world - not only the work itself wanting to go elsewhere, but in this case allowing La La voice. And yet there is "a bit" of irony to La La's story - that she is not capable of speaking with the bit in her mouth.
Further, in "Etruscan Pages," there is that section that says, "I am Larthia/ first words / found." This reminded me of La-La's word "Begin" . . . stating a name as a simultaneous act of empowerment and disempowerment (this is consistent with the naming of an object as an act of giving it unto itself - your "Things that do not exist without words" - and back, then, to Beverly Dahlen's notion - via Duncan - of the word imposing an order). Is it fair to suggest, then, that giving a name to something also takes power away from it, takes it away from the almost-mythical or mysterious plane of the "unspeakable" and into a world we can explain / understand?
La La's command to "Begin" was simply the very first step in
her willful participation in her own imagined independence . . . this
willingness to take on danger in exchange for what appeared to be the
glamor of costume and center-stage. The knowledge of servitude (which
included speechlessness) as the price she must pay did not occur to her
until she'd lived through the effects of that bargain. She wasn't so much
"naming" her fate as initiating a first, naive step.
As the poem unfolded and began to reveal its code, La La edged towards an awareness of her mute position and the urgency to speak. In this sense, the writer in me was "stuttering" into speech through LaLa's effort and through the inadvertent arrival of an error in the text - the 'D' in FernanDo. The subsequent recognition and naming of that error by extending and implanting it arbitrarily into the remaining text, and then following its trail of errors to the "matrix," led me to La La's final utterance: "now need speech."
Your question would seem to pose a difficult contradiction since one is often drawn to the "mysterious," and some of the most interesting poetry intentionally creates mystery - or at least unexpectedness - through syntactical realignments of common language. But I don't much care for the concept of naming as "imposing an order." I prefer to think of "the word" as a kind of magnet that invites and pulls potential orderings towards it, from which the poet - as reader and attentive shaper of meanings - begins to see and discover an order (among orders) at that particular moment in her history as it bisects human history . . . .that is, in that very curve and moment of evolving s/he, chooses the event and tenuous ordering of a particular "naming" . . . available to revision and translation in arriving time.
I could never vote exclusively for the mysterious" or "almost-mythical" plane as being somehow superior to our always flawed attempt to bring into consciousness something we've not yet recognized or voiced. In La La's case, an unexamined life, reinforced by her mother's smalltown ways, was trapping her into the "slave" or un/impowered, less-than-human position.
There's just too much at stake to knowingly inhibit the naming of what you see and understand, in order to go along with a received dictum that attributes power to the mysterious unsaid.
The way you've described the making of WING is much like "La La at
the Cirque Fernando, Paris," in that you have this thing that is
wanting to be a poem but feels itself lacking, or you feel it
lacking, and if it just had one more piece . . . or you
Also, there is a correlation between a line in WING, "Even the New is attached or marked by attachment" and a quote you use from Wallace Stevens' "Poetic Truth," to be found in TRANSLATING THE UNSPEAKABLE. "An isolated fact, cut loose from the universe, has no significance for the poet. It derives its significance from the reality to which it belongs." The very last poem section in IL CUORE - Part 10 of WING, entitled "Vanishing Point" - seemed a good finale. The page makes itself out to be a literal / temporal palimpsest, erasing itself to make room for The New. There is a lot that looks like gravity on the page, and a lot of talk about falling - "The New" as inevitable, just as gravity is a fact. So if everything exists only in relation to some other thing, there are no isolated facts, the new is never really new, if already marked by this relation?
KF: Exactly. "The New" is a reorganization of what we know and have forgotten or have just added into our cumulative awareness. It inevitably moves towards us to illuminate each generative period of life and that era's collective intelligence, even as it overwrites structures that have worn thin and lack a pulsing energy. The New, in poetry, is that which appears in a fresh syntactical/structural relation to what has come to represent the norm, language grammars caught in the act of re/forming to displace habituated thought and diction.
LS: Apropos of the trust issue, I'm thinking of a line of yours in "Notes re: Echo," "Why, then, do I trust your language enough to enter it? I trust it because it is both watchful and fluid, allowing the variants of yourself to have voice." There are also a few sections in "Etruscan Pages" I'm thinking of: "we know what each mark is equal to / but not, in respect, what was intended," and "Her family had wrapped her in cloth, this writing, because it was available." All of these surface the question of trust in language: while we trust it because it is all we have, language, as you suggest in "Etruscan Pages," is not permanently fixed. Where do you find you are in relation to this question of trust? Can we trust the error of language more than language itself?
KF: It is the separation of error from language - as if error were not part of the overall vehicle of communication - that creates the problem and helps to fuel the dialogue between trust and mistrust. The line you quote from "Notes re: Echo" was addressed to Steve Benson, a poet friend identified with the Language project, who foregrounded his own uncertainty, capacity for change-of-mind and personal vulnerability as part of his improvised performances. I was struck by his willingness to admit to his own ambivalence and less-than-absolute command of his subject - and to perform this with great comic timing - so that I felt included in his un/ease, rather than shut out by his claim to some ascendant understanding . . . thus our eventual conversation and friendship as writers.
As to the lines you've quoted from "Etruscan Pages," they're based on information told to me, in the middle of writing that work, by an Etruscologist working close-by at the American Academy in Rome . . . he'd stopped by our place, hoping to rent it for the summer.
LS: . . . "Etruscologist . . . "?
KF: That's a type of archeologist who comes to Rome a lot (laughter) . . . they come to do research at the American Academy and the Vatican archives, because so many important ruins are within a half day's distance of Rome . . . and so many archeological records and artifacts are stored in the museums nearby. Anyway, when I told him about the piece I was working on, he told me this amazing stuff about the Zagreb Mummy and the writings scratched over and over on the papyrus sheets she was wrapped in. It seemed like such an extraordinary and literal example of H.D.'s palimpsest that I had to put it into a second letter to my friend Susan - along with a prescient dream I had the next night, involving writing. I hoped that the second letter would propel the narrative line of the journey forward and deepen the themes of language erasure and reinscription that were emerging.
This entire sequence of unplanned events was amazing to me, particularly as it culminated in the dream I had soon after. I began the second letter with it - a dream in which my friend Norma had come to visit: "Two nights later I dreamt, again, of Norchia. This time Norma had come there to work on engravings. She asked me if I'd work on them with her. I began assembling evidence after that, scratching with my red and black ink down the pages of the new ledger you'd given me . . . all fragmentary . . . " The red and black refers back to the Etruscan's burial stones, which were made of this very porous lava - or tuffa - that could be easily incised. The Etruscans would often scratch their own names into their grave stones while they were still alive, and would paint black and red ink into the marks of the letters so as to add decoration. For this reason, I used the red ink and black as a color motif throughout . . . .one of those examples of a cumulative text, where you keep writing, and you keep adding in information discovered through the two or three weeks in which the writing is being assembled, and new things are delivered to you. Then you must figure out a way to bring them into the poem.
Each time I commit a word to the page, it involves the same ground of trust as when I walk out the door and assume (without thinking of it) that the air appearing "above" me (but actually around me) is called "sky," is, in fact, "sky." This trust is of such a profound and complex nature that we cannot afford to question it most of the time or we'd cling, in our mistrust, to some narrow and arbitrary understanding. So, even as we add and subtract words and letters to "our" inconstant version of speaking (writing), we drag trust along with us. It allows us to move, to write (commit) the next word confidently . . . or to test it tentatively, hesitantly, uneasily. This, for me, is when language becomes most revelatory - in the confident stride of the sentence that now and again stubs its toe and admits to error, in spite of itself. Error can exist only within this system of Trust, it does not stand alone but needs its neighborhood of agreed-upon rules to push up against in order to become its errant self.
Intrigue exists in that which is not intended. When you find that "you" - or your fast-flying fingers hitting the keyboard - have committed an error, you are immediately referring to the system of language that provides your trust, that arbitrary pattern of "this sound = this meaning". Error is dependent for its existence upon a settled, agreed-upon system. So both the system and its inadvertent orphan are interdependent, not better or worse. As a writer, I need them both, so must trust their sure-footedness and their independent refusals.
LS: Do you find this is, in part, why you use multiple voices? To allow for that range of possibility or truth - different levels of translation / mistranslation, seeing / mis-seeing from varying vantage points?
LS: So after doing all this research on a language that is obsolete at this time, do you feel it has affected the way you trust language's propensity to continue to exist?
KF: You mean, that it could disappear? I've definitely sustained a suspicion and worry that women's voices have regularly been erased from the historic text, and we know that any number of spoken languages are on the verge of disappearing. The assertion, will and effort needed to recover women's written texts - in particular - has been a compelling focus for me since the early Seventies. I still feel the fragility and tenuousness of its assured place, that at any time it can be jeopardized, just as we see in history that (unbelievably) a dictator can "suddenly" take over an entire country. People are weak, and they need and want rules and leaders and experts to say this matters and not that. It's easier for people to entrust the guardianship of written language to others. But I don't think books are going to be taken from us - replaced entirely by electronic forms - because we love them too much . . . we love that wonderful Japanese paper, and the smell of leather. I love the look of the Etruscan alphabet. Visually it communicates such presence to me, I could never trade it in for anything else. I'm sure that a large enough number of persons feels this way to guarantee that we'll keep our books.
But it's the written texts by women - the female voice, in its variousness - that will always need affectionate guardianship. After all the conscious work that's been done in these areas, we can still see the disproportionate gender equation that remains at the centers of power. Still, there's so much more respect for and interest in a range of writing by women than when I was first entering the writing world in the Sixties . . . it's very encouraging. But I'll probably never feel completely certain. How could I? We must live with these contradictions, you know? If I hadn't traveled among the Etruscans, I wouldn't know about their amazing culture, nor how the Romans did everything in their power to wipe out and absorb this artistic and celebratory and independent people.
All you can do is be a caretaker for your tiny patch of history, in terms of tending your own language, trying to keep alive the writing that matters to you.
Kathleen Fraser's recent publications include:
hi dde violeth i dde
FORCED INTO COUPLING
TRANSLATING THE UNSPEAKABLE:
POETRY & THE INNOVATIVE NECESSITY Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
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