Forever to Drown and to Fly in the Interrogative: A Conversation Between Philip Brady and Dante Di Stefano

Poet, Essayist, Editor. Philip Brady’s forthcoming book is The Elsewhere: Selected Poems and Poetics (Broadstone, 2020). His most recent book is a collection of essays, Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City (University of Tennessee Press, 2019) He is the author of four books of poetry, a previous collection of essays, and a memoir. He has edited a critical book on James Joyce and an anthology of contemporary poetry.

Dante Di Stefano—pictured left—is the author of Ill Angels and Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in American Life in Poetry, Best American Poetry 2018, Poem-aDay, Prairie Schooner, The Sewanee Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. Along with María Isabel Álvarez, he co-edited the anthology Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America.


Dante Di Stefano: In your introduction to Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City, you note that this collection of essays came from the experience of writing your book-length poem, To Banquet with the Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet. To Banquet with the Ethiopians is deeply autobiographical, but also deeply in dialogue with the Iliad (among other texts). Your poem is divided into 18 books, unified in formal and thematic approach. At Etruscan Press, you’ve published several book-length poems; Romer by Robert Eastwood is one recent example. Could you begin by giving us some thoughts on the long poem from the perspective of a poet, a reader, and a publisher?

Philip Brady: Etruscan began as a conversation. Are verse and prose two manifestations of the same impulse, trending toward different practices and traditions? Are they two completely different art forms, with different relationships to time and to the world, joined only by the technology of the alphabet? The long poem—and the poetic novel—have been central to that dialogue.

If lyric poems speak directly from one voice, longer poems refract and complicate. Yet, even in epics, one voice sings, mediated by narrative. As Samuel Butler says of the Iliad, “We may be sure then that Homer has his full share of troubles, and also that traces of these abound up and down his work if we could only identify them. For everything everyone does is in some measure a portrait of themselves.”

To Banquet with the Ethiopians began as a prose sequel to my first memoir, To Prove My Blood, before heart surgery brought a change in perspective and led me to “translate” the sentences to lines, transposing history in another key, as Timothy Findlay says, “which is mythology.” In Banquet, I was able to exercise three literary activities—storytelling, line-making, and exposition. Also, unlike prose, I could take the chapters with me off the page.

Ill Angels is comprised of individual poems, none longer than 80 lines, yet it presents aspects of length. It is, I think, a screed, a mediation, a sequence of linked portraits. Certainly, the characters—the father, the lover, the music-makers, the chorus of literary ancestors, and god help us, the president, confer and testify. And the technique invites a book-length reading. Lines are energized by kaleidoscopic images (“Artichoke the melody that catches/baritone with blasphemy and handcuffs”); syntax and parts of speech are torqued (“Don’t Plymouth yourself into forgetting”… “At the hour of forever I do”); catalogs recur, sometimes comic as in “Jubilate Pluto,” and other times hypnotic. Ill Angels is grounded in a prosody that is both constrained and wild (“take sides / with freedom, with fire, with freedom again”), but thoroughly original—and requiring length for full apprehension.

I’d like to hear about your book-making process. Did you find yourself dwelling on the interstices of Ill Angels? Did it emerge for you as a book, and if so, how?

DD: It’s so gratifying to hear Ill Angels discussed with such nuance. I did dwell in the interstices when I was composing it. It was composed in a much more organic fashion than my first book, which, like many first books, contained poems written and revised over the initial decade of my apprenticeship to poetry. The draft of Ill Angels that I submitted to Etruscan took about two years to write and revise. I composed it poem by poem, but there was always an eye toward the book these poems would eventually backbone and make their home. After composing individual poems, I would place them in the manuscript-in-progress and revise them within the context of the book-to-be. This process necessarily facilitated more ambitious poems in a more ambitious book.

Speaking of ambition, your work as a poet, a publisher, and an essayist has one thing in common: ambitiousness. In reading through your work, I was thinking of that great essay from the ‘80s by Donald Hall where he says to creative writing students, “This is your contrary assignment: Be as good a poet as George Herbert. Take as long as you wish.” Would you riff on ambition in your own work and in contemporary American letters?

PB: Thinking about ambition, I ask two questions. Am I getting better? Is it worth my life? My answers were challenged when submissions to Etruscan started to pour in.  On the one hand, as I put it in “The Book I Almost Wrote,” “Whatever their quality and number, these submissions were complete, and so they were better than what I was doing at my other desk…. Albert Lord, who studied bards in Yugoslavia, said that when oral poets learned to write, they lost the ability to compose spontaneously, and I thought that maybe something analogous had occurred and that after becoming a publisher I’d never be able to compose poetry again.” On the other hand, I’ve been given the opportunity to abet a wider range of great poetry than I could ever make myself. And when I did start remaking To Banquet with the Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet, I moved in the current of all those submissions. And it came quickly. “Every month I finished a verse chapter. At the beginning of each month I almost drowned, overwhelmed by all I hadn’t written, and by the end of each month I flew through the house. Over and over it happened, the drowning and flying, the rocking and chanting, till finally I was done. And because I had spent a decade reading manuscripts, I knew that this was different.”

One of the things that drew me to Ill Angels was the fact that despite its mature craft, it had the feel of a generative book. It is not the culmination, but a promise of full engagement: poems of love and fear and identity and wonder. As your publisher, I would abet greatness. So, what’s next in the George Herbert department?

DD: Well, I couldn’t ask for a better publisher. I think your take on the book is right. It is not a culmination. Kierkegaard said, “Faith is a process of infinite becoming.” Poetry is like that too, I think. Way leads on to way, line to line, trope to trope, draft to draft, and, if you’re lucky, book to book. I always think of that moment in Rilke’s novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, when the narrator says, “You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines.” I’d settle for one good line that I earn after a lifetime of writing. So, to answer your question, I am looking for greatness on the level of the individual line. I think I’m almost done with a first draft of a book of poems that is a step forward from Ill Angels, but that isn’t a culmination either.  It’s tentatively called Lullaby with Incendiary Device, and it’s about fatherhood. There’s much more formal and tonal experimentation in this book-to-be; there’s also a loosening of technique that I needed to work through in order to return more vigorously to the ten-syllable line that so interests me. However, I also want to remain as protean as possible, to take as many tacks as I can when it comes to formal approach.

One of the things I admire about Phantom Signs is the variety of tacks you take when it comes to the essay as a form. You have one essay that is a series of notes, one that’s a commencement speech, several lyric essays, and many essays that blend the personal with the critical. Your essays always assay in the fashion of Montaigne; they test and they attempt, and they sometimes end in a labyrinthine irresolution (that is to say, they are Borgesian). What have you learned about the essay as a form from writing this collection?

PB: As you say, “Poetry undresses, prose redresses.” To Banquet with the Ethiopians and Phantom Signs share the same wardrobe. They share the play between sign and utterance—a tension that arises from opposing ways of being in the temporal world. Utterance is breath, immediate and ephemeral.  Signs stand outside of passing time, transposing three dimensions into two. Essays can shift between utterance and sign because they require belief in a single speaker, and at the same time they allow us to suspend belief in temporal narrative. As I put it in an essay, “My Phantom Novelist,” “As essays present timeless ideas, they are poetic. As they are constructed of sentences and imply narrative, they are novelistic. If the clock in the novel ticks constantly, and poetic clocks hum in cloud–cuckoo land, in essays clocks lag and lurch, and even the real-world reader consents to blink.”

What about different modes in Ill Angels? The book includes several prose poems, and it seems to me that they emerge from the same voice as the lines which employ such distinctive prosody. How did you come to blend these two kinds of poems? What are your thoughts about the way they interact in one book?

DD: Again, like you, formal variegation is central to my method as a writer. Most of my prose poems begin in lineated versions, and so the cadences from the lineated versions carry over when they are translated into prose (the reverse of your process in To Banquet with the Ethiopians).  If I decide to turn a lineated poem into a prose poem, I do so to put the poem in dialogue with the tradition of the American prose poem as I understand it, ranging from Gertrude Stein to Russell Edson to Nin Andrews and beyond. As Michael Delville points out in his exceptional book, The American Prose Poem: Poetic Form and the Boundaries of Genre, “the prose poem has often been used as a means of questioning and redefining the methods, aims, and ideological significance habitually attributed to both poetry and prose.” Of course, this returns us to Etruscan Press’s foundational conversation.

Returning to Phantom Signs, who are some of your models when it comes to the essay?

PB: W. D. Snodgrass, In Radical Pursuit. Robert Hass, 20th Century Pleasures. William Heyen, Pig Notes. Bonnie Friedman, Surrendering Oz, Renee D’Aoust, Body of a Dancer. Will Dowd, Areas of Fog. H. L. Hix, Demonstrategy. Spring Ulmer, Bestiality of the Involved. Essays that play between the intimate and erudite. Bernard Knox’s introduction to Fagles’ Iliad. Emily Wilson’s intro to the remarkable new Odyssey. Essays that speak, re-read, reveal. Unlike long poems, the speaker of the essay must be singular. Unlike novels, (though sometimes they are contained within novels) the essay can expound. “If a novel requires thingness, and poems employ signs, an essay needs an author. In Universe City, the author hides behind the curtain of We. Stripped to my boxers, I pretend to be I. The more candid and entertaining my I, the more engaged your you.”

Models for Ill Angels?  I hear echoes of John Logan, Gerald Stern, Bridget Pegeen Kelly, and Diane Raptosh. Something about manic, purposeful meandering, many strands entwined, the thrum pulsing beneath the syntax. Something about immersion in distance. Allusions, tributes, conversations, ripostes range across time, cultures, genres, and status. Tell all.

DD: I’ve only read a handful of poems by Logan, Pegeen Kelly, and Raptosh, but I’ll have to read more. Stern was an important early influence; however, I haven’t read him in years. For the past twenty years, I’ve been obsessed with Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s the poet I return to the most. His are the only poems that have appeared in my dreams. I sometimes get up in the middle of the night just to read a few lines from “The Wreck of the Deutschland” or “The Windhover.” I feel his poems in my bones, and when I haven’t read him for a day or two, I feel a physical sense of withdrawal. No other poet combines such mastery with such unbridled joy and such wild sorrow.  Other constant companions include Ammons, Baraka, Blake, Dickinson, Donne, Ginsberg, Frost, Rilke, Sexton, Stevens, Smart, Williams, Whitman. Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” means a great deal to me. Among more recent poets, I’d rank as most important to me: Milton Kessler, Christopher Gilbert, Joe Salerno, and Jason Shinder. Surely, I’m also indebted to my poetry teachers, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Liz Rosenberg, and Joe Weil. It’s hard to say what poets have been most influential to me, though, because the influence shifts and realigns; as I read and write and live my relationships to various poems change.

I do know that poetry is another form of critical engagement for me; that’s why so many of my poems unfold in dialogue with other texts, music, and art. Phantom Signs provides a similar critical engagement with classic literature filtered through contemporary culture.

My favorite essay in your collection is “English,” an essay that begins, “John Smelcer is an Indian. I am an Irishman. Kyrie Irving is a Celtic.” The essay braids together issues of identity, authenticity, and truth that thread throughout the rest of Phantom Signs. This is such an intense and astonishing essay. It’s also one of my favorite sports-inflected essays ever. Has your conception of truth, authenticity, and identity, as articulated in the classic and contemporary texts you allude to throughout Phantom Signs, changed in the digital era? In the Trump era? In the era where a reality TV ontology (a flat-earther ontology) is ascendant?

PB: Poems used to be hard to find. Pilgrims sought out iconic bookstores—the Strand, Powell’s, City Lights, Cody’s, Prairie Lights—to find titles by a few upstart presses like Coffee House, Graywolf, Milkweed, Copper Canyon, BOA. Now poems are everywhere. Bookstores are a click away; presses proliferate beyond count. From a democratic point of view, this seems good. But poetry isn’t democratic, in the sense that every poem gets an equal vote. In fact, the profusion of works that call themselves poems may make it more difficult to hear the qualities that mark real poems. As I say in “The Book I Almost Wrote,” “Reading unsolicited manuscripts mars publishers. Print is limitless. If you are not a publisher, you may have no idea of how many serviceable poems are making their doleful rounds. At conferences or bars or beaches or subway platforms, we publishers pass one another and nod in silence, recognizing the vampiric gaze and slow shamble of the endless scroll.”

Having said that, Ill Angels takes a more engaged approach to the effects of social media. In “Preamble,” you write, “We don’t write poems anymore.” What do we write? Do we need to differentiate among poems and would-be poems? If so, how?

DD: In “Preamble” I set out to examine (and satirize, and attack) conservative and liberal epistemologies as they play out in the digital era. The line you quote about not writing poetry lives within that framework. I don’t use social media myself, but I’m very interested in the way it marshals discourse and circumscribes our lives. Understanding poetry’s position in a twenty-first century American landscape requires some engagement with digital culture.

Just yesterday, I read an interview with James Matthew Wilson in which he outrageously compares much of contemporary American poetry to child abuse. Instagram poetry receives the brunt of his ire, but Wilson implicitly dismisses anyone not writing so-called formal verse. It’s a bizarre anachronism to hear this kind of critique. At the other end of the spectrum, I have heard several prominent young contemporary poets say that if you call a thing a poem then it is a poem. Neither Wilson’s reactionary prescriptivism nor thoughtless relativism seems the right stance to me. Samuel Johnson was right when he said, “to circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer.” Still, I agree with Clive James when he wrote, “a poem is any piece of writing that can’t be quoted from except out of context.” As a reader, I know a poem when it undoes me and calls me back to it. As a writer, I know a poem when I want to dwell in its lines always.

I think we should be beyond the old internecine squabbles about what poems are; we should be more interested in what they can be but haven’t yet been. There’s plenty of room for Instagram poetry, for spoken word, neo-formalist, conceptual, autobiographical lyric poetry, and for all the other tributaries of world poetries. I’m interested in reading and learning from as many different aesthetic and formal approaches as possible. I’m not interested in negating or devaluing any of them. Having said that, I know I will keep returning to the questions you initially asked: “What do we write? Do we need to differentiate among poems and would-be poems? If so, how?” Maybe this type of questioning is why we read and write: forever to drown and to fly in the interrogative.

This line of inquiry leads nicely into a few questions I have about your essay, “Nothing Attested, Everything Sung,” in which you talk about your relationship with H.L. Hix. Without recapping too much of the essay, which hinges on a rumor that you are H.L. Hix, what has this literary friendship meant to you? What have you learned from Hix? Why should we be reading his poetry and prose?

PB: Because so few are reading it. A prolific poet and critic of enormous gravity and breadth, Hix’s erudition is legendary and his craft is inventive and unique. He reshuffles post-formal and post-modern. He’s been blurbed—in the same book—by figures as diverse as Charles Bernstein and Rachel Hadas. Yet, few know his work. One “outside reader” for the University of Tennessee Press, reviewing Phantom Signs, took literally my tongue-in-cheek trope that Hix and I were the same, thinking he was a figment of my imagination. But if you read the real Hix—all thirty-seven volumes in poetry, criticism, anthologies, philosophy, and translation, you may feel that the canon has misfired. You may recalibrate. You may even consider that the proliferation of published poetry has had one good effect: it has made available the books to organize one’s own canon. That is the mission of Etruscan—and of small independent presses. To allow—and urge—each reader to transgress against orthodox canonicity. Not just by taste, but with an ontology one can advocate. Small presses engage in poetry’s prime directive: to radically distort the scale of things, in order to see true scale. As I say in Phantom Signs, “If an atom were expanded to the size of the earth, physicists say, the nucleus would be the size of a cherry and electrons would still be microscopic…. The solid world is not solid. To reveal cosmic scale, poetry must radically dislocate the earth. Prose is an illusion nought dispels.”

So, Dante, who must I read, whom I would not find, and why?

DD: Echolalia in Script by Sam Roxas-Chua from Orison Books is one of my favorite books on my bookshelf right now. In it, a single prose poem contextualizes a series of angelic images (of asemic writings). This is the most truly Blakean book written since 1827.

Giovanni Singleton’s American Letters: Works on Paper is another book that combines poetry and the visual arts in an astounding fashion.

Divya Victor’s Kith is a hybrid text that meditates on different forms of connection and identification within the imagined community of the nation-state.

Alison C. Rollins’ Library of Small Catastrophes will probably receive a wide readership and rightly so. It’s the most impressive debut collection I’ve ever read. Rollins evokes and transforms the legacies of Amiri Baraka and Robert Hayden, while striking out in completely unexpected directions. Rollins is a librarian and an admirer of Borges, so her brilliance is not completely unexpected.

From an older generation, I return to William Bronk’s poetry quite a bit. I never hear him talked about, but along with A.R. Ammons he is one of the greatest inheritors of the transcendentalist spirit as filtered through Wallace Stevens’s ouevre.

Brilliant Corners, edited by Sascha Feinstein, is the only literary journal I consistently read from cover to cover.

I’d also recommend a short story collection titled Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and a novel by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, titled Call Me Zebra. Friday Black consists of eldritch science fiction and horror stories that weirdly harken back to Hawthorne’s tales as they examine race and consumer culture. Endlessly astonishing, achingly erudite, and downright hilarious, Call Me Zebra begins as an exilic picaresque and ends as a fraught labyrinthine 21st century manual for reading literature and the world.

Also, I wanted to second what you said about H.L. Hix. I’ve just begun to read him in earnest, and he is a revelation, particularly Rain Inscription, which I am working through for a second time right now. I’m looking forward to reading his new essay collection that you mentioned earlier, Demonstrategy.

In the essay, “X,” toward the end Phantom Signs, you discuss Hix and the work he produces. You say: “Seeing poetry as a work product privileges intention over inspiration.” You explore the idea of intentionality elsewhere in the book as well. I was wondering if you could unpack these polarities a bit more: intention versus inspiration. How do these two concepts interact with your idea of the “phantom sign?”

PB: Poetry requires belief, in my view, akin to religious faith, but more difficult to institutionalize. It requires, as I say in “That Lamp Is From the Tomb,” “a belief that within language, and outside of any particular iteration of language, there are possibilities that can never be attended at one time. They have one foot outside. They are beyond. They are what we used to call the Muse: not a persona, or a Star Wars Force, but a condition, a state of things. It flickers on the page and in the air. It circumnavigates the dead.”

Dante, thank you so much for this conversation. First of many, I hope. Why don’t you sign off with a poem from Ill Angels. Dealer’s choice.

DD: Thank you as well, Phil, for your conversation here, for publishing Ill Angels, and for the many insights I gained from reading Phantom Signs. I’ll end with a poem you quoted from earlier.

Stump Speech

You undress in poetry, but in prose
you redress. You grow old in prose, lose teeth,
forget the face of your brother, but call
to your dead and dying in poetry.
They are rising, your dead, in a column
pitchforking the stratosphere, scattering
in want. You want and want and want to know
the secret of happiness and stillness,
but you spit back the crescent moon’s comma
and vertebrae your conjectures in prose.
You desire in poetry, but you love
in prose until you learn to love the way
a poem loves, which is to river out
and spindrift and chickadee and yellow.


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