In October 2020, Kristina Marie Darling asked two authors who did not know each other and who generally work in different literary “branches” (novel/fiction and poetry) to respond to some recent work of each other.
Terese Svoboda is soon to publish Theatrix: Poetry Plays, her eighth book of poetry, which joins eighteen other books of fiction, memoir, biography, and translation. She’s the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, three New York Foundation for the Arts grants, an NEH grant for translation, a PEN/Columbia grant for translation, the O. Henry Prize for the short story, a Jerome Foundation fellowship for video, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, the Pushcart prize for an essay, and the Iowa Prize in poetry. She’s taught at Columbia, Williams, William and Mary, the universities of Miami, Tampa and Hawaii; Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, San Francisco State, The New School, and abroad. Her biography, Anything That Burns You: Lola Ridge, Radical Poet was published in 2016.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis is a poet, literary critic, and collagist. In her teaching career, she specialized in modern poetry and women’s studies, and taught a variety of other things at Temple University, including creative writing. Her books include the multi-volume long poem Drafts (written between 1986 and 2012);, the recent collage poems NUMBERS (2018) and Graphic Novella (2015); her second long poem, now in process, called Traces, with Days, which includes Days and Works (Ahsahta, 2017); Late Work (Black Square Editions, 2020); Around the Day in 80 Worlds (BlazeVOX, 2018), and Poetic Realism (BlazeVOX, in 2021). Her Selected Poems 1980–2020 will come out from CHAX in 2022. A Collected Drafts will be published by Black Square Editions within the next five years. As a critic and essayist, she has written extensively on gender, poetry, and poetics, in books including The Pink Guitar (1990, 2006), Blue Studios (2006), and Purple Passages (2012); on objectivist poets, editing The Selected Letters of George Oppen; and on modern and contemporary Anglophone poetry.
Mainly under consideration are Svoboda’s books Bohemian Girl (University of Nebraska Press, 2011) and Great American Desert (Mad Creek Books, 2019), and briefly Theatrix: Poetry Plays (forthcoming in 2021 from Anhinga Press), and DuPlessis’s book Late Work (Black Square Editions, 2020).
Terese Svoboda: “Late work has no time to spare, /…no time for wounding—only making” opens the book Late Work, number three of a four part series. I might as well start with the unimaginative but essential question: how do you write in series? This is not science fiction where we hop onto another spaceship to continue the epic. How do you determine whether the project is multi-volumed, and at what point? Do you see a new horizon toward the end of a book and then project forward, or do you plan them serially? Could you address the advantages and disadvantages of such a making?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Seriality on all scales has been a center of my concept of poetry. On a micro-scale, fundamentally what defines poetry is the line break, fragment, or other forms of writing in defined segments. Sometimes this segmentivity is shown by rhyme, meter, and stanza forms. Sometimes it is manifested visually (on a page), or by breath segments in performance. When you scale this up—you get to the individual serial poem, and scaled up yet again, you get to writing in serial units, whether this means assemblages of poems, or some kind of linkage meant to build on prior works. That was a little abstract, maybe, but to personalize it, for me, individual serial poems are acts of thinking, and vectors of thinking with leaps, intuitions, dialogues, and reconsiderations of a question implied. You can see this emphasis on a poetry of thought thinking itself on the page in George Oppen as well as Charles Olson, Mina Loy, Langston Hughes, Lorine Niedecker. Often in a serial poem, reading strategies involve much inference, and any conclusion is oblique. Seriality was “invented” as a poetic occasion and tactic numerous times in the twentieth century. Jack Spicer is a name that also comes up along with the others I’ve listed. I suppose while serial work interacts with ideas of a series, the difference is that a series more readily offers a conclusion at the end.
Serial modes have always been very idiomatic to me (which is why I then pursued the concept to a basic definition of poetry in segmentivity). How I write in serial modes is dialogic and responsive, like considering shifts of position. I guess in the recent book Late Work that you focus on, the main serial poem is “Angelus Novus”—taking one topos or question (thinking about the “Angel of History” in a citation from Walter Benjamin) and considering it from a number of facets. No spaceships are involved!
In poetry, for me, there is no Law, only essaying to wobble/warble and dance with words and their various contents (and dis-contents we might say). Writers should produce one satisfaction for themselves—the sense that their work has necessity. That’s the ethical meaning—to end up with serious work that can be seen as such, work you can put your name on without cringing now or in the future, work that makes you happy to have done it.
The advantages for me are engaging in a poetry of thought, with the propulsion of different positions as development. The disadvantages occur when readers might prefer a poem whose logic of development is more predictable, less ‘leap-y.’ For the writer a challenge—not a disadvantage—is weighing in one’s mind how much is enough, what sequence contributes to the organization, when to go on, when to stop. But these are the challenges of writing anything, not a disadvantage.
Your Wikipedia page is prodigious, as it begins “Terese Svoboda is an American poet, novelist, memoirist, short story writer, librettist, translator, biographer, critic and videomaker.” Can you gloss how you achieved this range of practices? This is an open invitation. Did they happen all at once? In stages? By design? By simply following your nose and your interests? For professional commitments or contracts?
TS: I’m flattered to have my career considered as a whole. As a child I won prizes in drawing and writing; as an undergrad I studied poetry and painting. I applied to the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design for grad school and Columbia for writing. Columbia gave me more money but I took my electives in ceramic sculpture. While writing my books, I exhibited 15 art videos at MoMA and internationally, and the one that was commissioned by ITVS was named one of the decade’s best biopics by the Getty. I’ve had only one contract to do a book, and that was my biography of Lola Ridge, and I would never have endured the torture that biography offers without it. Professionally speaking, I had (have) no design. I’ve just finished a second memoir, Hitler and My Mother-in-Law, and have embarked on writing the lyrics for another opera.
In “Shepherd’s Calendar” you write: “At least could we offer a cryptic / outline of something— / sending unread letters out, documenting clouds of loss?” After having edited a volume of letters by George Oppen, is any of your work a conversation with him, a letter?
RBD: I’d say writing letters has been very important to me. It is a way of engaging with others and saying things to yourself at the same time. The past years of email (has it been 20? or 25?) are an extension of this. Epistolarity as a tactic helps you to read yourself—always important for writers to figure out how to do. More of my work than you note here is letter-like. In Interstices the whole book is an alternation of letters written to a letter of the alphabet which/who is also a person intersecting with sections called ledgers. And that dialogic sound I was noting from your first question is important to me—any address outward, any calling is vital to poetry.
As for Oppen, I have written several poems to him, the most recent being “Draft 85: Hard Copy,” which is my midrash (gloss) on Oppen’s 1968-69 poem “Of Being Numerous,” taking it up section by section (40 sections—and yes, a serial poem), commenting, varying, responding. This work is in Pitch: Drafts 77-95. It is emphatically a dialogue with his work.
The reason I edited the Selected Letters (and now apparently rather long ago!) was because, unlike many poets, Oppen had done very little public critical writing and yet I knew he had written many intense, helpful, and challenging letters to me, and to at least one other person whom I knew. In about 1980, four years before he died but while he was failing, I had the very “simple” idea—the first iteration—of collecting a selection of these letters to make a gift book as if of “Pensées”) for his friends and colleagues. All I can say is—when I started deliberately asking around and found the depth and scope of Oppen’s interesting letters about poetics and politics, the project changed drastically and became a serious literary historical intervention that took ten years to accomplish. Of course, to consider this in the first place, I had to feel that his work was important. I did, and therefore chose to do this project.
It appears you have earned your living as a teacher as well as a writer, and other tasks or commissions as well. How do you manage to get your writing career sustained in balancing everything you’re doing? Do you alternate gigs? Buy yourself time? I’m interested in the material mechanisms of writers’ careers in general.
TS: I’ve taken only visiting gigs in order to have time to write. In hindsight, however, I think I was destined to do that because I enjoyed switching colleges as an undergrad and ended up attending eight of them. I like registrars and libraries. I’m also not so fond of committees.
Near the end of “Shepherd’s Calendar” is the first time “trace” is strongly and repeatedly invoked, the “sense (among others) … of time ticking in one’s private body.” Is it “late work” as in work that should’ve been written earlier, or is it late for something, or is it merely late in the game? You write near the end of the poem: “It is a strange and almost instantaneous modulation to go from having all the time in the world to having almost no time in the world.” Has the compression of time helped you in any way?
RBD: In the whole course of my work, the real first time “trace” is evoked is in a very, very long poem called “Draft 87: Trace Elements.” My very, very long is a little waggish—really I do write long poems, but this is the only one written expressly as a plenary for a conference called “Poetics of the Trace” held at Monash University, Melbourne—thus the poem took the full 50 minutes to deliver. In this work, I examine a number of uses of the idea of the trace—something evanescent but vital, some kind of mark that barely marks itself—in quite a number of contexts, from micro (trace elements necessary in nutrition), to cosmological exploration—a project whose acronym was TRACE (Transition Region and Coronal Explorer), a NASA project about the sun. I suppose this poem offers a philosophy of trace; I would not rest on that—actually, I’d say it is a poem and poetics of trace. It’s really not my goal here to write an exegesis of a thirty-page poem, but simply to say that the notion of the quick trace of time is only one of several notions I use.
“Late work” is also an idea used by Theodor Adorno and then by Edward Said to explore a looser, “no time to waste,” intentionally fragmented style that actually does not depend on being old (as they say) but as an attitude to the work at hand: exilic, resistant, quarreling with time and norm, unreconciled, and filled with unresolved contradictions. When I titled that book Late Work, it was as if I was saying—but I’ve always written late work.
You have written novels, linked short stories, a number of books of poetry, and at least one book of poetic plays. What is the notion of your practice that allows you to enter several genres? Do you have a clear idea of the center of gravity for each work before you write it? And how does that happen?
TS: I usually say that I change genres because I am failing in one and assume another has to be easier, but I think it’s more as if I never have anything to lose, having drawers full of unpublished works like everyone else. Discovery, however, is very important for me, and knowing what I’m doing deadens the work.
Such a lot of wonderful play in these poems—“lambsy d’ivy” and even the much maligned exclamation mark in April of the “Shepherd’s Calendar.” And “kiss abyss.” Have you become more prone to play as you’ve matured as a poet, willing to admit [poetry’s] less serious aspect?
RBD: No, to me poetry has always been infused with the joys of language and a deeply felt wit of deploying it.Bohemian Girl, the innocent survivor’s adventures shaping what I take to be a picaresque novella about the young girl traded off by her father, is also well researched to stay within some bounds of the real (the Civil War, the frontier, the Underground Railroad, the real railroad). What is the attraction of both the historical account and the somewhat fantastic elements for a reader? And for you as a writer—is that border area something you seek consciously and why? It feels to me as if two genre worlds are perpetually working out a dance in your work—can you name the meanings of that dance for you?
TS: I’m primarily interested in the con, convincing a reader that a certain confluence of emotion is possible within a given believable situation. History offers a formal parenthesis—and the endless paradox of truth being stranger than anything I can make up. And an alien world. If you think children don’t understand their parents and the decisions they make, imagine understanding your grandparents’ world—or Marie Antoinette’s. Few verities unite history. I think of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Blue Flower especially, that opening scene where they’re doing the annual wash. Annual.
Trace‘s ars poetica seems to me to be “Mackle, Shard, and Trace” which begins “So what’s the point? / To outline the trace of / wanderings” and ends with “Mackled bits of Being / smatter smatter smatter.” It strikes me as a kind of Buddhist assessment of poetics. Would that be accurate?
RBD: Actually, saying “So what’s the point?” seems to be inflected with a language intonation that I hear as Yiddish. Of course, Buddhism is as attractive as any religion is (which means sometimes attractive and sometimes emphatically not), and as varied in its social forms, artistic modes, and spiritual implications as all religious cultures are. Its “let it be” attitudes are sometimes humane and useful and sometimes annoyingly quietistic. There is a lot to learn, for instance, from Zen attitudes of startled wonder, pared-down simplicity, and long study. However, in my view, there’s always a problem with the social and political forms all religions take, no matter what kind (montheistic, polytheistic, locally-based, centralized, closed book, open book). Religions are political and historical institutions, not only cultural ideals, and are prone to dividing people from each other in mean and damaging ways. I’d say my attitudes to religion are generally skeptical and secular within a suffusing spirituality.
And further in Bohemian Girl, the compelling voice of a girl and young woman who survives through the magic of voice and her craft suggests to me that hearing some voice is at the heart of inspiration for you. This is also true in the story “Hot Rain” (from Great American Desert) from the teller of the tale in a crazy family where the controlling 90-year-old father leads a very active life in full dementia. Can you discuss that proposition about character-voice or substitute another? I don’t mean that “one heart” of inspiration is the sole explanation—this too is quite discussable.
TS: I want to grab the reader’s lapel and whisper in his ear to inveigle him to read on. Emphasis on voice allows me great latitude—the things people say! In writing Bohemian Girl I really enjoyed rethinking diction to mirror the toughness of people in the last century, those chewy long sentences and clunky inversions, and making that modern enough that today’s reader could swallow them. I wrote my fourth novel, Pirate Talk or Mermalade, entirely in voices, really because one of my many, many, many Chuck McGrath New Yorker rejections said (very kindly—perhaps untruly) that I wrote description well—so I did without it. The challenge with the pirate story was conveying the seventeenthth century using just voice, and cross-dressing without description.
My favorite poem is “Angelus Novus” with its evocation of angels as animals, especially since it seems we’re at the point that it seems animals are our angels, as Covid companions but also in crucial biodiversity. The angels exist where “Paradise is / modern and gives rise to storms.” Amid those storms, you ask: “The question to me / – is how to go on from this, not to trash it. / …is this my cowardice?” that then ends with: “as we cannot “simply say “o sing.”” It’s not the only ghost of Whitman in the book. (“I should be more bold, for anyone who is not with me / here / will long ago have ceased to read the book”) but I’m wondering if Rilke also played a part.
RBD: I love thinking about influence and confluence. One never writes a poem as a one-off object, but rather as an address to a whole literary culture as one tries to realize it, absorbing, shaping, and joining it as best one can.
Plus the similarity of the poem “King Leer” with the story “Hot Rain” suggests that you want to reuse material in two genres. How does that work in general? Do you do this a good deal or just sometimes—is it a key move in your practice? How do you want the reader to take it?
TS: Sometimes images persist. Tin God, my third novel, began as a poem, transformed into a short story, became stuck as a novella until I alternated another story between each of its chapters. The result was turned into an evening of dance—which put the image out of my control at last. A persistent image is a palimpsest that can be (is) written on over and over, or, in poetic terms, a lyric poem that offers many facets.
I see you have another volume already prepared for publication, Poetic Realism. Could you tell us something about how this book relates to the others in the series, and where you’re going next?
RBD: I decided to make books that simply alternated Traces and Days—one kind of poem more meditative, one more notational to get at the feeling of these days—less sureness about the world, more crisis, necessitating a straight, confrontative attitude I was calling “poetic realism,” which means not tarting anything up, not filling the age with decorative objects. Doing single books of poetry made for a scale different from the years it took for one book of 19 long and linked poems to develop six times—that was the scale of Drafts. (Sometimes I tease myself that my whole poetic career is backwards—first I did a long-large-important work that took 25 years, and now I am doing what is more typical of younger poets—unified “books of poetry,” shorter and more manageable for readers.) In these books, which I am describing as a long poem, or long project in book-length episodes, their order got a little scrambled in the order of publication (that is, the order they came out is not the “intended” order). So the order that I intend is Days and Works (Ahsahta, 2017); Late Work (Black Square Editions, 2020); Around the Day in 80 Worlds ( BlazeVOX, 2018), and Poetic Realism (BlazeVOX, forthcoming 2021), actually beginning poems of days. After Poetic Realism, I am currently working on something called Daykeeping (quite unfinished). How to describe these? They are more about contemporary history and the granular moment. The portal work, the work that somehow opened the terrain, is, curiously, the book of collage poems called Graphic Novella (2015). The earlier book called Interstices is more like a farewell to Drafts as I now see these.
Graphic Novella uses newspaper clippings (as does Days and Works) as a mode of sounding in real time and place. It tries to look at the news and not seek (in that avant-garde cold war) for the new. So too the poems variously address the outside world and make observations from the tiny self, experiencing our world, its trials and struggles, as set in a cosmological zone of mystery. Always the speaking subject is like a post-lyric self.
By the way, having these projects does not mean one pre-plans the projects or their impact within the work one strives to write. I didn’t write these works to conform to a pre-planned scheme, but to respond to life on the ground as I see and feel it.
RBD: Are other novelists who have written poetry part of your inspiration and mental tool kit? Or did you draw on different examples of other people for your use of these different practices (or genres)? I am thinking of only two writers who have recently done both, and for both I consider them poets primarily—Gwendolyn Brooks and Nathaniel Mackey. There is also William Carlos Williams. Are you in one or another category “primarily,” and why or why not?
TS: I didn’t know Mackey wrote in another genre! Great! Williams’s In The American Grain was my first encounter with the possibility of exploiting poetry for prose. The prose poems of Henri Michaux and Jules Supervielle and of course Russell Edson provided me with more direction. Anne Carson’s masterpiece, Autobiography of Red, is one of my favorite novels. I also love the prose poems of Latasha Nevada Diggs’s TwERK. My strongest allegiance is to poetry, the word as building block, the white space both container and cauldron. Fiction ringmaster Gordon Lish preached that prose is made up of words and plot lies even between the assonance and dissonance of sentences, and that sentences bumping together made for a strangeness that could propel a reader to read on. All of that rang true for me as a poet. I always feel lazy when I write declarative sentences, with poetry’s fireworks tamped.
RBD: Poetry-play-surrealist absurdism? Is it performable? Or is that the trope that unifies the work—again drawing on an odd quirky speaking voice? Is this Theatrix typical of your other work in poetry?
TS: Theatrix is an attempt to un-perform. Having written for opera and competed with spoken word practitioners, I want this poetry to play on the page. The mind is the greatest stage of all, and if I might date my comment, the perfect Covid arena. I have poems in other books that lean toward this type of untethered, principally in Treason, my fourth book, which has just been reissued by Doubleback Books as a pdf.
RBD: What prior writers or movements do you feel confluent with in your poetics of fiction? The wee allusion to Willa Cather in Bohemian Girl is palpable—is it a clue or a little snark, considering you make the sighting a bit comic? The comic horror of everyday normalcy in the linked stories makes me think a bit of George Saunders, too. Any comment on analogue writers? I mean that as a way of asking—where do you place yourself?
TS: Willa Cather is a model of promotion and hard work, and being Nebraskan I had to come to terms with her glory, especially in a novel named after one of her most famous short stories. She does not invite followers. Although she was mentored by a number of her elders, she mentored no one. (Correct me: Willa Cather devotees!) Donald Barthelme’s wit and the beautiful sentences of Don DeLillo have been more seductive. As for my place in the world of writing, I straddle the experimental and the quotidian, giving precedence to content over form, which leaves me nowhere.
TS: My experience has been that it gets much harder to get one’s poetry published later than earlier. To embark on work at such a scale suggests to me that you feel secure that it can find an audience and a publisher.
RBD: I was never an early-rewarded poet, although when I found my sense of writing, I was published with wonderful small presses and some serious journals on the internationalist and small press side of things. I had a conviction of what I wanted in poetry and was lucky enough to do some of that work. During this “career,” I don’t think I have ever been confident that any publisher was waiting with an open-ended invitation.
Also Wikipedia says something about your being a feminist. There are many strands of this venerable and admirable position. What braiding of the strands have you made in your work? Does feminism infuse the work directly in topics covered, characters created, themes or the arc of plot? Or does it infuse the life behind the work? How does feminism work for your work?
TS: There’s quicksand in them thar hills. Inasmuch as I am female and have encountered the silencing that the gender evokes from patriarchy, be it lover or father, I am a feminist. God is a feminist in Tin God, a novel She narrates as a Midwestern middle-aged woman. I like to think I privilege my female characters with power and that inherently makes for conflict and plot. I’m also interested in how the male and female in every character manifests or blends one into the other: gender as array. Politically I have marched, worn pink hats, signed and circulated petitions, watched pornography. But I am also a product of my time. Believing that I was a rebel, all along I seem to have mostly obeyed my father, both figurative and literal, to my regret. How about you and feminism?
RBD: It’s always a question of what feminism, where, when, how. I have no problem with resisting what things the many feminisms of our time have promulgated, become, or made difficult. I am certainly a feminist, but I wouldn’t hold any politics or critical position without trying to complicate things. I’ve taken various lumps for whatever other people thought “feminism” was to them—without their necessarily looking at what I was saying. But who cares, finally! I have gone on record as a literary critic using the phrase “the feminism of reception.” This makes no demand on any author to be feminist, not, some kind or another—one can also be a flaming sexist and be quite worth reading. The feminism of reception means that I offer gender-involved readings of authors—historicizing, interested in biographical choices, and the outcomes of any gendered vision of the world in any aspect of a text—whether found in encoded imagery, plot trajectories, or conclusions. I’ve already written a lot (in both “personal” and scholarly and essayistic modes) about the “career of the woman writer” and a bit on the male poetic career in gendered modes—taking “the” as a plural possibility, not as a single template imposed on unwitting writers of the past. My first critical book, after all, was Writing Beyond the Ending—on narrative strategies used by twentieth-century women. I’ve also written a number of essays on gender and poetry/poetics. And since gender analyses are sometimes incomplete without pluralized social terms—I’ve also written on race/ethnicity and religious cultures in literary texts. I like the crunchy complications of texts—I guess both in what I write and what I write about.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Poetic Realism. BlazeVOX, 2021, published Feb-March 2021.