Interview with Cole Swensen
Cole Swensen’s most recent book is Such Rich Hour (2001). She also translates from contemporary French; a novel by Jean Fremon titled The Island of the Dead and Pascalle Monnier’s book-length poem Bayart are her most recent publications. She divides her time between Paris, Washington DC, and Iowa, where she’s on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
FV: When I think about your more recent poetry, one of the more striking aspects of it is its form—the way that it combines long lines with shorter boxy stanzas—the way, in short, you use the entire page as a canvas. Could you talk about this, and who, if anyone, has influenced your own distinctive open form?
CS: “Canvas” is just the right word. I’m thinking of the page as a visual object as well as a support for something audial. Then, perhaps you can get the eye and the ear going at the same time, creating interference patterns and interesting tensions and co-operations.
At the moment, for me, the visual is the more dominant. The notion of poetry as a principally audial form seems no longer accurate. Despite the increase in readings and reading-genres (slam, spoken word, performance), most of the poetry we get now comes off the page, and yet the visual aspect is often not addressed.
And the graphic use of the page affects not only the visual—it also affects timing, rhythm, and stress. Emphasis can be orchestrated by placement, and ambiguity can be fine-tuned through line breaks.
As for influence, Susan Howe’s work has certainly been important—you’re aware, when looking at her work, that you’re in the hands of a visual artist. That aspect of her history echoes and informs her pages. Claude Royet-Journoud’s and Anne-Marie Albiach’s works also changed my sense of the page, got me to thinking more visually—and of the book sculpturally. Claude, for instance, is always conscious of the way the words interlock or overlap when the book is closed, which offers an additional reading, a vertical one down through the pages, making us aware of poetry as an object in space, not separable from the materials that compose it.
FV: It strikes me that some of your poems are almost unreadable in some ways because they invite several kinds of continuities at once.
CS: I couldn’t agree more—and that wasn’t really what I was after. I think Such Rich Hour is the most disruptive—and that’s the issue-there the layout at times actually disrupts the reading, rather than inviting a simultaneous reading and seeing. I didn’t realize that in time. Oh is another text with multiple possible readings, but there I don’t mind it as much because—and I don’t mean this as illustratively as it’s going to sound—I was thinking of the page as an operatic stage. I was hoping that within the page/stage pun there would be room for voices saying different things at the same time in different registers from different points in space. Sounds nice—but does it work? That’s the question I keep coming back to.
FV: How did you come to your interest in ekphrastic poetry? You just spoke of your interest in the visual dimensions of the page, and so much of your work is deeply interested in ekphrasis. Where did that come from?
CS: I’ve always loved painting, particularly oil painting, though I never fused it with my work until one fall when I happened to live a couple of blocks from the Louvre while in Paris on a grant that included a free pass to all the national museums. So I’d go every day, and found that writing in front of paintings allowed me to see them in more detail and depth. It was almost a literal tool to lever me into the work, to get me inside it.
FV: Do you continue that model of looking at the painting while you’re writing, or does it become, sometimes, a matter of recollection?
CS: I usually start in front of the work itself, but all subsequent drafts and their offshoots are based on recollection. A few things I’ve written recently are based on the overall tendencies in a person’s work rather than specific pieces. For instance, I’ve been working on something re Pierre Bonnard and his use of windows—in that, a few specific canvases come up, but it’s mostly grappling with issues of framing and glass that come up throughout his works, and, in turn, his works stimulate other speculations on those issues.
FV: I’d like to talk a little bit more about ekphrasis, if that’s OK with you. A lot of your ekphrastic poetry engages medieval and Renaissance art, particularly painting. How have these traditions influenced you or your writing—if at all?
CS: I’m sure they have. It’s funny though: when we say “How has something influenced you?” we think “How has it changed you?” which implies, “What would you have done otherwise?” which, of course, one can’t know. That aside, both, and particularly medieval painting, have affected my thoughts on representation and the immense value of distortion. And on the other hand, and perhaps more important, writing has offered me a way to spend more time with those paintings.
I think writing is traveling, so of course that includes time-traveling. I know that I use it a lot that way—as a mechanism to become completely subsumed in a moment, no matter when or where it may have “actually” occurred. Which is what happens when looking at paintings-you get assumed by the painting. You live in the painting for a little while, become a part of the composition.
FV: I’d like to return to this question of time in a few minutes, but that’s quite helpful.
CS: At some point in talking about ekphrasis I’d like to touch on the notion of the limits of art—ekphrasis can get you, in a back-door sort of way, into having to define art. For instance, in writing about opera, no one would question that one is writing about art, but my current project is based on French formal gardens—is that also an ekphrastic project? I feel very much that it is—and of course, does the label matter? Only in that the category, or genre, catapults one into the pleasurable question of where art begins and ends from yet another angle.
For instance, no one would seriously deny that a formal garden is art, yet it extends the questions of stasis and frameability beyond those appropriate to most works of art. Is the view from the garden also a part of the garden? Is the sky above it a part? When you see the garden from a hilltop a ways away, suddenly everything between you and the garden also becomes part of that work of art. Which is in some way the same one you see from its gates. And yet entirely not. And then of course, there’s the whole awkward problem that the thing literally grows. And so on. One could just say, “All right, the world is a work of art,” but that’s too broad to be interesting, so you’re back to asking yourself where the line falls.
FV: Try is interesting in this context, inasmuch as it seems to be a re-visioning of a medieval vocabulary-a spiritual vocabulary rooted in keywords, perhaps key realities of “faith” and “the soul,” even “heaven.” What do you think about “the soul,” or what does your poetry think about it?
CS: I don’t know. I tend to look at religion and concepts related to it as historical events, or an historical continuum that has had tremendous impact in every era and location for which we have a history. So, most often, I view them historically, and at the same time, I have a deep fear of organized religion and a deep generalized faith in life itself. And I recognize that I have the luxury of not having to make a stand, of not having my life determined by my religious convictions. Obviously, in many parts of the world, I would be forced to decide precisely how I feel about these matters, and to make sacrifices based on that. Instead, I feel the real luxury of being able to explore the question.
FV: Tell me if I’m wrong, but your poetry, particularly in Try—and I’m thinking of a poem like “There”—sometimes finds a parallel between the faith of medieval and Renaissance artists, a faith which enables the apprehension of a visionary world, and the desire to recover that visionary faculty in your own work, or that of contemporary poets. Is there for you a relationship between faith—not so much in the conventional religious sense, the sense of institutionalized religion that dictates that one must think this, this and this if you are a true believer—but in a more general sense, is there a relationship for you between the role of faith and the visionary in your writing?
CS: I wouldn’t ever think of my work as visionary. The word seems to imply seeing beyond the immediate, the apparent, and I’m dedicated to quite the opposite—to trying to see more deeply and accurately what’s actually there before me.
FV: I’m thinking of this distinction: obviously, there’s the Catholic dogma of the time, which in the hands of particular painters is perhaps more vital than that. But I’m wondering if what enables those paintings to come into being in the first place is “faith,” an ability to think beyond the horizons of the given…
CS: That’s a very nice definition of faith—the ability to think beyond the horizons of the given; I interpret that as imagining other social, political, and practical situations than those handed down. And in that sense, yes, that’s exactly what struck me about many medieval painters. Ironically, their “faith” carried them beyond the Church and back into the world. While ostensibly painting religious works, they were in fact increasingly riveted bythe actual world that forms the “background.” It was an era in which the importance of the immanent, even the reality of the immanent, was gaining ground, and that immanence surged up from the backdrop, overwhelmed the religious event depicted to become itself a sacred thing—sacred defined as infused with exactly the sort of faith you referred to above. Joachim Patinir, late 15th, early 16th century, has a painting of Mary Magdalene in the desert in which Mary M. doesn’t even appear. It’s all world.
FV: This idea of giving yourself over to the material world…
CS: A focus on the immanent as opposed to the transcendent is really important to me: I feel very much that heaven may be well and good…
FV: And yet that’s what I was trying to get at—maybe in a confusing way using the word “faith” because faith is tied up with the whole tradition of the transcendent—yet it requires as much faith to paint a painting and invest it with value and love and meaning as it does to worship something transcendent. In other words, “faith” has been colonized in unfortunate ways. Yet it all begins with looking at a blank canvas, or looking at a blank page, and willing something into being.
CS: I think that’s very well put. And maybe it’s because of the received ideas of our postmodern age, but I’ve come to think of transcendence as evasion, as refusing to face up to the world. And we must.
FV: Let me talk a little about death or ask you to. Of course, a lot of medieval and Renaissance art is fascinated by death: it is a very material reality. For you is there an important relationship between poetry and death? Does poetry, for example, work in order to defy death? Does it give death meaning?
CS: No. My interest in medieval art is not related to an interest in death. I don’t think much about death. When someone I love dies, obviously it’s pervasive, but I think of it in the particular, and not in the abstract.
FV: That’s interesting to me because it seems to me that so much of your poetry is interested in engaging in the vitality of life, as well as the social materiality of life—and death. I’m thinking of this book by Derrida, The Gift of Death, or Wallace Stevens’ “Death is the mother of beauty.” It seems to give your poetry a kind of poignancy and beauty, even if it’s not dwelt on…
CS: It’s interesting to hear you raising a question that makes me think. My! It’s a huge topic—how is it that I haven’t thought about it much?
FV: You talked about frames earlier. Of course your poetry inevitably frames the world, but I notice a great reticence in your poetry in the naming of the world, not that you don’t name the world—you do over and over again—but the unsaid is given an extraordinary place and an extraordinary space in your poetry.
CS: I’m glad it’s perceptible, because it’s really important to me. In thinking about influences, Rosmarie Waldrop’s first book, Against the Limits of Language? develops her very interesting ideas on the unsaid or more precisely, the unsayable, and throughout the rest of her work, the unsaid exerts a pressure. I was also influenced by Wittgenstein and his relationship to the unsayable. While I don’t think about it consciously, I’m always aware of the pressure of “what cannot be said” and of the inevitable collision of sayable and the unsayable as a fruitful one. They come together and undo each other, somewhat like a shore—a lot of the water goes into the land, and a lot of the land dissolves and goes into the sea, so it’s a constant exchange. In a sense the poet is a membrane between the sayable and the unsayable, through which some real aspect of each does and can pass.
Perhaps we tend to think of the sayable and the unsayable as clear territories, as if there could be a boundary, no matter how squiggly between the two, but though I think of it spatially, I also think of the said as permeated constantly with the unsaid.
FV: A sense that one has to be responsible to the unsaid, to approach the unnamable as well as that which can be named?
CS: Your phrasing of it there makes me think of Jabes, and in his treatment of it, it’s very clear; the unsayable or the unsaid is always tied up with the human; it is or touches on those who cannot speak. However, what I’m suggesting here is a very different thing, more abstract. It’s a zone of undifferentiated possibility, so rather than feel a responsibility toward it, I feel a promise from it, and that poetry that says the unthinkable mines and transforms some of that possibility into actuality.
FV: I was speaking a moment ago of the space in your poetry for the unsaid, which seems to be literally there, a physical space, and often your lines feature adjectives without nouns, almost as if the things had been erased. Does this suggest the existence of something like a “thingless” world, that is a world in which qualities are more present than things—or is it more that this environment creates a space that gives extraordinary weight to the object world when it is signified in your poetry?
CS: I think more the former. I’m interested in the world as verb. I don’t consciously write adjectives without nouns, but I am conscious of my interest in the verb, and in the possibility that what appear to be things are suspensions in a series of motions. I’ve always liked the Pound/Fenollosa line from The Chinese Written Character, “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature.” And so forth; it’s a wonderful passage
FV: This seems to help clarify what you were saying earlier because to name them is to arrest them…
CS: And maybe not falsely. In a sense, that’s what we’re doing all the time. We’re arresting little bundles of energy and making them useful—a pen, a river, whatever. And that’s necessary, but there’s also always some current of energy running through the static object that interests me very much—as if an ambient vital energy got transformed into a coffee cup when we need it and then went on to be transformed into a book or a shoe or whatever. Somehow, language, with its own marvelous mutability, keeps us aware of, can trace for us, those transformations.
FV: I’d like to talk about one of the image patterns in your poetry. One of the recurring images is the imagery of hands. Your poetry is fascinated by hands, by “handedness,” their physicality, their gestures, their signs. Are hands symbols for you of what it means to be human?
CS: No. For me, hands aren’t symbols; they’re hands. I love them, and not what they might mean. Or rather, I also love what they might mean, but that’s completely separate. As for their “meaning,” they’re the interface between the world and the self, a membrane like the poet is between the sayable and the unsayable, a liminal zone of transition, and I’m always fascinated by those, wherever they might appear. And for many people, hands are, as you say, the symbol of being human. The opposable thumb, prehensile grip, and rotating wrist are, according to some, what allowed the human brain to evolve in the way that it did.
I’ve just finished with a book called The Book of a Hundred Hands that’s coming out next year. It started because I felt I was too obsessed with the image. I wanted to get it out of my system, and thought I’d do so by writing a whole book just on hands. And then I came across a marvelous how-to-draw book on hands with great text describing all the different bones and veins and tendons…
FV: So that didn’t allow you to get rid of your obsession at all, did it? [Laughter]
CS: [Laughter] Not at all. I’m interested in serial work; I’m interested in serial paintings, and in why serial poems can’t work in the same way, which is, of course, connected to the question of obsessive imagery. How does an obsession accrete? It’s that thing toward which one gravitates without traceable reason. And it’s the untraceability that makes it important—it’s untraceable, but not arbitrary. It has the surprise and speed of the arbitrary, but with a tenacity the arbitrary can’t achieve.
And is an image an exhaustible thing? If you write a hundred poems about the same thing, is it going to get boring? I’m convinced that any image is inexhaustible. That’s one of the things that images can do—not only be inexhaustible, but in fact, be generative. So I was trying to write about the same thing a hundred times and have the topic less exhausted than when I’d started.
FV: I want to have you talk about the speakers in your poems. Unless I’m woefully wrong, the speakers in your poems almost always seem to have an indeterminate identity: they speak out of and across histories that are mysterious. Could you elaborate on your view of speaking in poetry, and any connections that might have to what subjectivity to you means?
CS: The I is always a different person—no two Is are the same, and they’re all imagined. In Such Rich Hour and Try, they’re momentary historical characters, an onlooker, a painter, a saint. The I is the option for specific perspective, therefore, the option for the particular itself. And so, for me, it’s the option to enter. We enter the world through an I. I like to think of Is as sites that remain constant while we slip in and out of them.
FV: But that’s to you: to the reader those exist as possibilities sometimes more pronounced than others, but many times, it’s impossible to rule out who is actually speaking. That’s not in any way a criticism; I’m very interested in that.
CS: The I is more the possibility of speech, the possibility of directly affecting the world, of participating in the world through language—and the fact that that can come from anywhere adds to its power.
FV: It seems to me that Oh in that sense isn’t then a brand new departure because you have this stage of a century or the stage of a history in Such Rich Hour and Try, and voices are coming out of that, and those voices have their own authority and their own articulations, whether we’re able to identify them as historical personages or not.
CS: In a sense one is simply the composite of what one says—and also what one does, of course—but the “I’ in a poem can only say: it’s the third person that can “do” in a poem. I find that an interesting dichotomy: as soon as we get the first person in literature, we’re reduced to speech, and in turn, speech becomes action, as in J. L. Austin’s performative language. The spoken word is always an act. A primary act.
FV: Along the same lines: your poetry creates a force field that disturbs the notion of the linearity of time. In other words, your poetry isn’t committed to absolute linearity. What does “now” mean to you?
CS: Deictics in general are charged elements. As soon as you say “here” or “there” or “now” or “then,” you raise all the problematics of presence, all the impossibility of presence, all the arguments about presence, and in a poem, it’s impossible to say “now” truthfully. It’s necessarily an inaccurate word trying to be accurate, a little gesture of effort, trying to pull a fictive moment (as all not-nows are) into an actuality. And yet, every writing or printing of the word now is renewed with each reading, so the word becomes a site of disjuncture between its impossibility and its inevitability.
FV: That’s interesting to me because in reading your poetry, I often get the sense that “now” is impossible and yet not at the same time because “now” accumulates the past, and it also seems to anticipate the trace of “your now” so that it’s “arrows” in both ways…
CS: That’s nicely put. And gets us back to the idea of poetry as traveling; deictics are one of its engines. They shift you elsewhere before your logic can resist. Maybe the “now” on the page sucks you back to 1435, and though it’s only for a split second, you are there for that split second; maybe deictics have the performative capacity to incite that to which they exactly refer.
FV: And that gets back to that notion you articulated earlier of the painting assuming the spectator, so that in a certain sense the Middle Ages are irrevocably lost—and not. In positioning yourself before the gaze of that painting
CS: I always want to touch paintings because of the sense that in doing so, you would break the surface tension of time. [Laughter] Of course, it’s the one thing you can never do to a fifteenth century painting.
FV: As an aside: your poetry is all about hands, but not so much touching…
CS: No, you’re right. It’s the hand itself. The book on hands that I mentioned earlier opens with Wittgenstein’s first line of On Certainty: “If you do know that here is one hand, we’ll grant you all the rest.” The hand has a degree of reality that no other object ever quite attains.
FV: Sometimes your poetry is impenetrable, at least to me. Is it important for you for poetry to be “hard,” to speak a language that no one else quite knows?
CS: I’ll answer this in two ways: I’m interested in surface, so in that sense, in a language that cannot be penetrated easily, that stops you on the surface, that lets you be there with the object. On the other hand, I think I’m not aware sometimes of how impenetrable it is, and then when someone mentions it, I think “Oh rats.” There’s usually something I’d like the reader to get in addition to the surface.
FV: Which may happen with other readers….
CS: But judging from the number of people who make that comment, it doesn’t happen a whole lot! [Laughter] But I love the idea that maybe a poem can have a surface tension, a strong surface tension, so that you almost bounce off of it in a way that I would hope is pleasurable. But then you can, with a gentle pressure, penetrate it in a way that reveals or gives the language a depth. It’s the experience of two dimensions collapsing into three that I’m after.
FV: I think that that definitely does happen in your poetry, and it reminds me of when George Oppen was once asked the same question and was chagrined because he thought it was all so absolutely clear.
FV: Speaking of the self evident, I’m reminded of a quote by Roland Barthes having to do with “the violence of the self evident” which seems to be something that your work is mindful of, that there’s a violence associated with saying “Well, this is the truth of the world, and why can’t you see it.” Would you accept that interpretation?
CS: Yes; well put. I don’t recall that phrase specifically, so don’t know its context, but I would also sense another kind of violence in the self-evident itself, not just in the implication you point out above. And actually, I think thatviolence is something I’m seeking—a slip or twist that suddenly, shockingly, makes an aspect of the world apparent. Truly apparent—not something we know, or even see—but apparent in a complete way that doesn’t require a medium, even that of seeing or knowing. Language, though itself a medium, can do this, and often through direct statement—not “this is the truth of the world,” but, “here is one hand”—and what it brings us back to is the unsayable. I’ve been increasingly interested in the paradox of the affinity between direct statement and the unsayable. But how to do enact it without erring either on the opaque, the unproductive difficult or the bombastic? How do you avoid frustrating the reader while allowing the poetry to attain both physicality and self-evidence?
FV: Do you have an ideal reader in your own mind?
CS: No, absolutely not; I’m happy with anyone [laughter]. And perhaps one could also say that there is no ideal reader; rather, reading is an ideal activity—in that What could be better? and also in that it demands ideals—the reader must have them, and must be willing to alter them.
FV: I would guess that when you write you’re not always sure where you’re going to go: you talked about traveling and journeying. I suspect that that’s an important part of your writing, an important part of your practice of writing.
CS: The poem travels, which is different from the poem as a mode of travel. I think that’s definitely true, yet I hate personification: “The poem just wanted to go that way!” etc. It gets precious. That said, writing, or any art, can be used to unlock the mind in uncommon ways. While I’m not a fan of the layer-cake view of the mind—superego, conscious, subconscious—it’s too neat and tidy—I think there are activities that can get our minds to go off in ways that we know they wouldn’t have gone otherwise.
FV: If a poem follows the track of the unconsciousness, you not only write poetry, but you also do a lot of translations. How do translations exist in your writing life? Is it a way of doing the same thing but following in someone else’s path?
CS: Yes, quite possibly. And though, as I said, I find the conscious mind/unconscious mind an overly simplified model, I think there’s a way that a translation mines the unconscious aspect of a poem itself, brings it into visibility.
FV: Do you learn a lot by doing translations?
CS: A tremendous amount. Foremost, it’s simply pleasurable; it’s a way of reading. I translate people whose work I love as a way of reading it really deeply. And yet it’s essentially writing—it’s reading by writing.
FV: It’s another form of ekphrasis in a way, isn’t it?
CS: That’s a great way to look at it; I’ve never looked at that way. I like to think of ekphrasis as having different modes; I’m not so wild about the mode that stands in front of an art object and describes it because that seems, actually, oppositional. I’m more interested in ekphrasis that entwines with its object, that lives with its object, and translation is very much that kind of ekphrasis. I think it’s important, too, to see translation as a critical act; it’s a commentary upon the text at the same time that it is a text. Have you read Rosmarie Waldrop’s book on translating Jabes?
CS: It’s a brilliant work—Lavish Absence is its title. She explores translation as a multivalenced act, something deeply embedded in the writer as well as in the translator. It’s not at all a traditional essay; it takes freedom with the essay form to underscore translation as a commentary, as criticism, and as conversation. She’s been a tremendous influence on me in my translation practice.
FV: In what ways?
CS: Number 1: She’s a brilliant translator—each of her works is full of subtle solutions, things particular to the instance, things you could never put your finger on and that, yet, the student of translation absorbs as a library of possibilities. On a more concrete level, I’ve always worked off of her idea of translating in three stages: the first draft with the text right there, and then the next few drafts with the text put away in a drawer somewhere, thinking only of the language on the page.
FV: A new thing.
CS: A completely new thing. And then doing the last draft next to the text again. Just to make sure that you haven’t veered entirely away.
FV: That’s interesting inasmuch as it’s quite different from your poetry, where you’re really interested in wandering away from, say, the painting. Have you ever attempted to do something like Lowell’s Imitations?
CS: I like that. It would be fun. I’ve actually done some on Jean Follain’s work. But somehow I would never consider them sufficiently my own to present them in any way, nor would I consider them sufficiently true to his work to present them as translations.
FV: But is that an institutional problem rather than your problem? In other words, that seems to be a problem with the way in which we organize our understanding of literature…
CS: I agree, though I also basically agree with that understanding of literature, while also being suspicious of the occidental anxiety of “originality.” Who cares if it’s “yours“? It’s not about being yours; it’s about creating alarming arrangements of components that are public property in the first place, whether they’re words or phrases. It’s not a new argument, but it’s one I like—and also one I have a hard time practicing. I tend to draw a distinct line between what is my work and what’s another’s, so I wouldn’t ultimately be comfortable with experiments like Lowell’s.
On the other hand, there’s an aspect of translation that’s pure service. That may sound a little, “Let us go a-martyring,” but there’s something very freeing in service. It’s what I loved about bartending and waitressing: all you had to do was serve this person. You abdicate all responsibility, which is, of course, very dangerous. Translation seems to me a safe way of indulging in this freedom.
FV: All the words are already on the page.
CS: Yes, all the important decisions have already been made; they’re not in my hands. And whether the piece fails or flies is not in my hands either. That was someone else’ worry, and it’s already worked. It’s already landed safely. I’m completely absolved of all those anxieties.
FV: Let me end by just asking you to mention some of your favorite poets, as if everyone were still alive. And also, are there some that leave you cold?
CS: I’m sure there are. In fact, there are tons [laughter]. But I tend to forget about them and concentrate on the ones that continue to move me so much. Many of whom are still alive. But I’d rather not name names-as soon as you do, you realize you’ve left out someone vitally important, and then the whole list seems askew. But I did something last term that I’m going to do from now on, and that’s use a book a week published that year. And this year (2003)—what a year for books of poetry! And I bet every year will offer equally difficult choices.
FV: What about Pound? He’s such a vexed figure, but I often think about Pound as I read your own writing—I hope that doesn’t come as a shock to you! Not because you’re saying the same things; you’re not, but your willingness to take material which is often thought of as obdurate to poetry, like sections of prose that import into your poetry, as with the great modernists like Pound and Yeats, this interest in making history personal. Imposing upon history a personal vision. It seems you are also in that tradition, whatever you think of Pound.
CS: I am an enormous admirer of Pound. And can get really annoyed at his misogynistic tendencies, but even there, he’s using beautiful, beautiful language—stunning. Every time I use a phrase like “beautiful, beautiful language” I ask myself what does that really mean? Words that move me very much. And what does that mean? But I do find his work huge; it teaches a completely different way of reading. The Cantos, in particular, teach reading as explosion. As soon as you go into them, you’re sent back out—to look something up, to consult a new text. They’re a mode of traveling culture, both its history and its potentials. He’s not trying to seduce you into histext—he’s using his to multiply so many others. It’s a very generous move.
And the idea of contra-linearity, of simultaneity—he complicates the notion of historical progression, allowing a fascination for or commitment to history without reducing it to a series of immutable causes and effects. He was, in so many ways, very generous.
FV: To Zukofsky…
CS: And to Oppen and to Eliot and to Olson, and to so many people—Moore—marvelously generous. But I also mean generosity as generosity in language. His language is always overflowing; it flows outward. He has great faith in his language, and makes it his own. And though I know he always edited—he edited tremendously—there’s yet “more” rather than “less” operating all throughout his work.
FV: Speaking of Pound—and this is the last question—what do you think the position of the avant-garde in the states is? In some ways, some could make the argument that it is a new orthodoxy. The historical avant-garde always thrived on being marginal, outside the major institutions—museums, universities, etc.
CS: Although marginality as a social and philosophical concept fascinates me, I don’t think it’s important in this practical way. In fact, it very easily gets fetishized. What’s important is good writing. What is that? Exploring that question is what’s important, and it can happen in relation to institutions or in complete isolation.
I don’t necessarily connect the concepts of marginality and the avant-garde. I find I use that latter term only historically, to cover certain artistic, social, and political experiments between 1890 and the second world war. Using the term beyond then to indicate any work dominated by exploration and experimentation not only weakens the term, gradually making it too broad to be meaningful, but it’s also nostalgic; it gets us bogged down in precisely what we should be using to move forward.
As for the historical avant-garde, you’re right; it has become orthodoxy; it’s become the canon for progressive, post WWII writing. And I not only like that idea, I do everything I can to promote it, which is principally through teaching. They are the texts, and more importantly, that is the spirit that I want my students to be aware of. It’s work dedicated to aesthetic vitality, and that recognized aesthetic vitality as necessarily entwined with social and political vitality.
It’s of course crucial that we not simply repeat their projects. That would be to ignore the tremendous advances they made re the materiality of language, re unhooking creative writing from self expression, re recognizing that all writing is a political act, and re the book itself as a primary unit, which in turn, throws open genre, opens a way for writing itself, rather than “writing a poem,” or “writing an essay,” etc. Suddenly, writing is no longer a transitive verb, but it’s not an intransitive one either; it’s an open verb, one that completes itself in its own act. I think the most interesting work going on now takes off from there, assumes that heritage and goes somewhere else.
FV: Seems like an excellent place to leave it. Thank you so much.
CS: Thank you.
Interview by Jon Thompson