A Conversation with Noah Warren
BY BRAD TRUMPFHELLER
Perhaps Noah Warren doesn’t even need an introduction—after all, three stunning poems from his debut collection, The Destroyer in the Glass (Yale University Press, 2016, recipient of the Yale Series for Younger Poets Prize), brought the poetry section of our Winter Issue home.
In case you did not catch our Winter Issue, however, let it be known that Noah’s ability to reflect on place and setting lends an enhanced and distinctive appreciation of the moment to his work. The world is explored and explored through his work and his collection, given new language and identification and weight. Read on to learn more about his process, his style, and approach!
This first question comes from our last featured contributor, Fatimah Asghar: what projects are you working on right now, and where do you see your craft heading?
NW: I’ve always had to fight not to write about landscape, and, looking for a pivot after the book, I figured I’d relent a little. Being in California helps: no matter how groomed & prinked the suburb is, when you lift your gaze there’s always a mountain, a counterpoint. So the great challenge has been to bring mind & feeling & narrative into compositions where they don’t naturally inhere, into poems where there may not be any people; and to do this in good faith viz. that landscape, without thinning it to just a carnival mask for urban thought. This may sound a little ponderous, but I live in Palo Alto, and my other way of coping with such a non-place is a sadder, fangier ironic mode.
One of the biggest pieces of advice that is given to younger writers is to read more than they write. What are you reading nowadays, or what have you read recently that’s been particularly affecting?
NW: Going through Devin Johnston’s work a few months ago was a delight. I loved his attention, in the recent Far-Fetched to the normalacy of eccentric life—or, our need to divide the external world into the relatable and the exotic, and to transgress that line. Passim, but especially in Sources and Aversions, the work is astonishingly attuned to the rivers of ancient thought that debouche into the present moment, and it manages, with crisp tight lines, to phrase silences when you least expect them. A friend, Margaret Ross, turned me on to Robyn Schiff recently: A Woman of Property is magisterial. And then, because I’ve been thinking about made spaces & gardens: back to Campion, Wyatt, Marvell. They’re just so stealable.
Let’s talk about your book, Destroyer in the Glass, selected as the recipient of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize by Carl Phillips (congratulations, by the way!). How long have the poems in the collection been developing? Is there a good variance of material from across time? And how in the world did you decide what to include in the final manuscript?
NW: Thanks. The first poems that made it in date from my senior year of college. But the real question is always the architecture of the whole, which has to arise from the content of the poems but, once it has arisen, becomes somewhat indifferent to any single poem. And I sensed I had amassed almost enough material in the spring of 2014; I spent the next six months trying to articulate that architecture (writing drafts built around different arcs) and then fleshing in the final version with new poems alert to this whole. “On the Levee” was one such, as was much of the fourth section. But these had to push out earlier darlings that simply couldn’t be made to fit.
I noticed quite a bit how the book seems to occupy this state of travel. As readers, we’re located & relocated everywhere from Massachusetts to New Orleans to castles in Denmark. Even within “On the Levee” (featured in our Fall 2015 Issue!), there’s this sense of a shifting landscape. What do you find is the role of place in your work?
NW: I hint at this above: but I think I’m mostly just thin skinned, and end up writing about where I am in the instant. If the book is a growth narrative, the discrete places make quantifiable (however spuriously) a qualitative progression. & the power of dislocation, of course: you arrive somewhere, and your consciousness is running through its habitual operations of thought & perception, except now the terms have been switched around, and rifts between intent and effect spread everywhere. Most of these gaps are annoying (why isn’t the train stopping at my stop?) but some are bound to be numinous.
Another primary thematic element of the collection seems to be this dual interrogation of the self and role of the self as something of an outsider: a figure of witness. Another Adroit poem, “La Dolce Vita,” ends with this sentiment of “I was invisible / behind the blind, wrapped in my thick blue robe.” How does this distancing function for the project of the book as a whole? What are the ethical components of a distanced speaker?
NW: I think I would collapse those categories. When I look back at “La Dolce Vita,” I see something more like an unsettled dream of witnessing, the poem arriving at a larger irony that makes the final claim of the speaker, that you quote, a little stoic, a little pathetic. I think any claim to dispassionate witnessing belies itself, and these sudden, total implications of the speaker into what he articulates are at the heart of the book. The only way to keep going, in life or in the poem, after such paralyzing encounters, is irony: hopefully the tender, half-redemptive kinds, but often not. It’s the oil of cosmic smallness.
I’m sure having Destroyer in the Glass win an award like the Yale Younger generates a certain amount of readership for the collection—and, therefore, a greater variety in the types of criticism & consideration it receives, at least in theory. Has there been an aspect of the collection that you felt was important to its inception and development but that people may not have picked up on as much?
NW: I’m much more interested by what others see in the book than by what I intended. (Furthermore: how can you know what you meant? It’s impossible to re-see the poems as first imagined, to strip away others’ readings.) I sketched my understanding of some of the poems above; but the work belongs to me less each day, and that’s the most exciting part.
There’s been an outcropping of recent essays I’ve seen that seem to be addressing this question of politics in poetry: poetry as either a force for political change, or the preservation of the political status quo. What do you see as the role of the poet in the world now? Has it changed over time, and do you believe it will change in the near future?
NW: I think understanding poetic thought & being able to think poetically (whether you call it that or not) is absolutely necessary if you want to understand the movement & thought of the larger culture. Because poetic thought is not thought per se, but the debris of past thought, and as we deduce the travels of a mind through a poem by the language artifacts it leaves behind, in the process inhabiting it ourselves, so do we move through, inhabit a field of cultural products. When it comes to politics, I think poems, like tracers in a lightning storm, can sear a path that later, more visible energy will follow, translate, magnify. But of course there are as many roles as there are poets; and many other poets I love are actively conservative, in that their poems secure, however briefly, a space outside time for anachronistic thought, anachronistic feeling. I think we lose as much as we gain in each passing instant, individually and culturally, but it is perhaps possible for art objects to look a little back & a little forward, like Janus, and, by graceful conjunction, to simultaneously revive dead ideas and show the domesticity of radical thought.
And finally, feel free to drop us a question for our next contributor conversation!
NW: What material will you use to build your house?