If the book is a metaphysical mechanism (e.g., an entity whose vitality must be delved into behind that cover by which you’re cautioned not to judge), then Ed Pavlić’s Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO (Fence) is the kind of book that opens you as much as you open it. Simply, this is a collection of writings that discloses much of what we would keep secret from ourselves about self-disclosure. Modifiers such as “prodigious,” “rigorous” and “mindful” ultimately feel inadequate to a describe Pavlić’s art here, for, as poetically as it gives / gifts, it does so without whatever leniency “freedom” and “beauty” might imply.
There’s a better introduction to Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO pitched somewhere between Cecil Taylor’s “To feel is perhaps the most terrifying thing in this society” and Emmanuel Levinas’ “For others, in spite of myself, from myself.” But, for the time being, let’s let overtures be burdens, and—at the risk bowdlerizing Calvino—be the admittance by which context itself seeks and learns to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are neither damned nor damning. To work on behalf of their sustaining; to grant them their capacities.
1) Cathy Park Hong describes this collection as “cross-genre.” Would your describe the book as one concerned more with formal hybridity or with a (restless?) movement across or in between various discourses?
Cross-genre or in between discourses sounds about right to me. I’m afraid, this is actually something of a story. In trying to get myself together in my late 20s, under the tonal spell of Miles Davis, Sade, and Phyllis Hyman, as well as other musicians, I’d honed in on a kind of formal “unity” in writing my first book (Paraph of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue); this was probably necessary to gather wildly ranging, raging, and broken straws of world and me and at least, as it were, sweep a corner of the room/self clean. From here I can see all that as an interval in an intuitive survival tactic. At the time, I remember writing and revising felt like focusing sunlight through a magnifying glass; at the bright spot, I could almost smell the smoke. But, apart from the burning sensation, I could also feel the small, incremental beginnings of a chart or record of world-me-life that was a discernibly new advent in my awareness, an unprecedented space; by some alchemy, something was stilled, maybe distilled, in the chaos of things clashing together and coming apart in what all the world was telling me I was, what it was telling me it was, and what I’d seen and felt and who I’d therefore set about to be.
Then, between 2001 and 2006, while it was unraveling but still in that mode—call it lyric form—I wrote four “second books” which were all gathered into a single volume (a word in the title for each of the formerly separate books), Labors Lost Left Unfinished (2006). Those years I worked under the sound of many many musicians but, really, gathered together around the hub of Charles Mingus. It had transported me downward. I remember when that book came out and I saw it for the first time, I felt like I’d snapped out of something, and everything and almost everybody looked as if I was staring at them through the wrong end of a telescope. There’s too much to go into there but it certainly had its formal or generic element. I’d ridden the lyric downward trying to get to the bottom of how experience is inherited and created; by the time the book was finished, of course, I had the mounting suspicion that there isn’t a bottom.
Working at my first academic job, feeling profoundly isolated, it was as if Bellocq from Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter had taken me by the hand (maybe not as if, maybe that happened?). The lyric of Hayden and Komunyakaa (and others) had delivered me into a deep-seeing place, a kind of bright blindness, where knowing had become an act listening to a throb and tone made of thinking and feeling. Up at the surface, the world raged on: multiple wars, endless racism flying this way and that, and I spent most of my time physically attached (and when not, emotionally and psychically attached) to one, two, and then three young children who were growing up. Looking back I can see that I needed more than the tone and throb of that bright, focused spot of light.
In short, I needed a change.
Of course, by the time I noticed my need for it, change had already come. I’d been mumbling about a book in prose—whatever that meant—focused on the soul singer Donny Hathaway. Sometime around 2003, I’d begun to write scenes in the life of Hathaway and people around him, I’d conducted faux interviews with him and others essentially by listening to his songs in endless repetitions, reading what little there had been written by and about him, and matching up what I heard and read to what was happening to my body at the surface of life. In 2008 or so, I gathered all those pieces together—cutting out about two-thirds of what I’d written—into an improvised documentary kind of book, Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway. Working on that book hadn’t been pretty but there it was. Evidence—at least to me—of something else.
So, my books since Winners, (But Here Are Small Clear Refractions (2009), Visiting Hours at the Color Line (2013), and Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno (2015)) have all found a kind of footing in a hybrid or cross-genre form I think of as “documentary lyric.” It’s a form that can accommodate “narrative” without succumbing to the rigid structures we require of stories, can explore and transmit (would-be?) “information” without uprooting it from the throb and sound that gives its urgent message its singularity, and that can retain the on-a-dime capacity for shifts and leaps we associate with lyric modes of writing and consciousness. I think of it as an extension of the way filmmakers extended the “radical empiricisms” of William James, Ernst Mach and other “proto-phenomenologists” from the early 20th century.
Mostly in hundreds of letters but also in person and on the phone, to the extent I was able to verbalize it, I discussed all of this with Adrienne Rich during these years as well. A few years ago, I came across a quote from a letter she’d written to Aijaz Ahmad about his project translating—or assisting poets including Adrienne, W.S. Merwin, William Stafford and Mark Strand in translating—ghazals by the 19th century poet, Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, a.k.a. Ghalib. Adrienne wrote:
The marvelous thing about these ghazals is precisely (for me) their capacity for both concentration and a gathering, cumulative effect . . . I needed a way of dealing with very complex and scattered material which was demanding a different kind of unity from that imposed upon it by the isolated, single poem: in which certain experiences needed to find both their intensest rendering and to join with other experiences not logically or chronologically connected in any obvious way.
In the late 60s and early 70s, at the end of Leaflets and in The Will to Change, Adrienne translated Ghalib (a line from one of those translations serves as an epigraph in Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno) for Ahmad’s edited volume, Ghazals of Ghalib, but also wrote her own “ghazals.” The incredible sequences “Ghazals (Homage to Ghalib)” in Leaflets and “The Blue Ghazals” from The Will to Change owe directly to this formal capacity she noted in her letter above. But, somewhat less obviously, a piece like “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” echoes and employs that sense of formal opening in an even more dramatic way. Works such as “Twenty-One Love Poems” from The Dream of a Common Language and the amazing sequences “Sources” and “Contradictions: Tracking Poems” from Your Native Land, Your Life further exemplify the power of that sense of genre-crossing and formal opening.
So, finally, at some point, I can’t remember when, I began to consciously think of what I was by then calling “Verbatim” as a loosely construed, cross-genre and inter-disciplinary form. The structure in Visiting Hour at the Color Line placed brief (3 – 7 pages or so) “Verbatim” pieces between sections of lyric poems, all the pieces astraddle one version or another of “the color line” in American life. Basically, Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno does the reverse. At the beginning, middle and end, it scaffolds itself with extended (around 20 pages) sequences of “Verbatim” prose with sections of lyric sequences between them. The focus in Inferno covers more geographic space than was the case in Visiting Hours.
But, in all of that above, I’d like to stress that the formal alterations really did follow the demands of my experience (in daily life, travel, and in reading and listening) and my need to find a way to chart that experience in a way that might, I hoped, open it up for readers to enter and begin to adapt its charts to their own worlds. I don’t see Verbatim as a formalized aesthetic so much as an evolving, improvised accompaniment to contemporary American life. More than anything, I think of those Verbatim writings as windows I’ve come upon (partly built, partly found) that look out on our lives and our world.
2) Yet isn’t there a discrepancy at work in that gesture, for memory can never recover the original experience, only previous recollections of that experience? (And one might read a poem that makes its meanings through collage and multiple laminations of appropriation such as “Rendition Of A Pyrrhonist” as the text reminding itself of the problem of the original.) How are these “Verbatim”—memoir-like, thus non-heretical paraphrases—actually words unreworded?
Well, my friend who builds very high-end stereo equipment tells me that fidelity means “faithful to the original event.” But, you know, my audio system doesn’t “remember” music. I think if verbatim recall (fidelity) were an evolutionary advantage, we (at least me) here in the bell of the curve would have very very different memory capacity. I’ve been wondering about this lately, whether an event at one point in a life, not in “time” but in a life, at least, can really be said to change the reality of previous events in that life? I think this is actually quite possible and, if so, that suggests that many of the things we think of as faulty in our memories (when they don’t act like a great audio system) might be really very sophisticated results of evolutionary success. Maybe we’re not supposed to remember “original” events because they’re simply not real or relevant. They’re most real, relevant as the result of their practical reality in the shape they take when passed back and forth (political shape) between people as well as in the shape they attain in our interior lives (as we rehearse them constantly, also political). Maybe “time” itself is the always re-creative product of the constantly shifting shape of millions of lives (all of them in some way grieving / remembering the no-longer alive) washing together into political and experiential terrains.
In No Name in the Street (1972), Baldwin wrote:
Time passes and it passes. It passes backward and it passes forward and it carries you along, and no one in the whole wide world knows more about time than this: it is carrying you through an element you do not understand into an element you will not remember. Yet, something remembers—it can even be said that something avenges.
This passage is very interesting to me. Baldwin was almost 50 when he wrote it, approaching middle age (with a fraction of his life left). It makes me wonder if, as we age, if time doesn’t start to flow more intensely in both directions, maybe less pulling us ahead than causing us to reflect backward. But, backward into what? Certainly not into anything remembered verbatim or with fidelity. And, that bit in Baldwin’s passage about “avenges?” So, you know, maybe our memories function as they do in order to cue us to some deep responsibility—or, maybe liability—we bear for the way the past passes through us in the world we make for each other. Maybe, if we meet up, if we encounter each other, a moment in your present can change my past? Maybe, at our best, what we’re aiming to do is to become the version of the past best suited to dealing with what the past (basically, meaning ourselves and each other) has taught us to expect around the next bend and in whatever is on the way after that. As Baldwin put it, “storms are always coming.”
3) To quote a quotation Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO repeats verbatim: “prius in sensu.” In reading poetry, I feel as though I am constantly reenlisting myself in the cause of perceiving first and interpreting only much later, if ever. At the same time, I find I must caution myself not to become marooned in my own sensational amplitudes. I have to be moved to move myself, I think. And yet poems of testimony, as many of the poems in this collection are, do often ask a vulnerability of us that we might, under other circumstances, name “dumb,” as in “dumbstruck.” If any one poem in Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO might serve as a manifesto of (or ars poetica on) poetic imagery, which poem would that be, and why?
You know, I think it comes back to Stevie Wonder’s song “As,” an anthem to presence, to experience as a mutual entity. At bottom, with “prius in sensu,” I mean that we might at least feel things first before we reject them. At the very least, there’s that. Meanwhile, Bob Marley warns “Stone that the builder refuse, will always be the head cornerstone.” Can we really afford to cover the costs of our repudiations? How can we know when we can afford to do without things we’ve turned away from or things that have turned (or have been turned) away from us? Increasingly, I have found that my knowing and, even more, my educated versions of these choices aren’t trustworthy. I’ve had to choose what to attend and to whom in more visceral—at times counterintuitive—terms.
I wonder, I fear, that people have been taught in all kinds of ways to reject things first and then feel the remnants, the “diminished thing.” Enter, whiteness, false witness of the modern. Maybe “whiteness” itself, which I think is a mode of being in—but not present in, meaning in a position to take advantage of but not be vulnerable to—the world more than a skin color, is a massive conspiracy to, in effect, reject the world before experiencing it. I think this explains something about how modern power is articulated in all kinds of ways. . . I think this would explain something important about the terrible peril that accrues to people as a result of what they consider to be their privileges, certainly from privileges associated with whiteness. In many ways, privilege, in the ways Americans seem to conceive it, means exactly this: that the risky importance of the world, other people, and experience itself can be mitigated. This is very dangerous and insidiously widespread territory.
I think the characters in these poems have come by some intuitive sense that empathy and self-interest are very very deeply entangled; they’ve refused the modern (Western?) formula that suggests we can mitigate our dangers by distancing ourselves from the danger of (thereby intensifying the danger to) others. Maybe, out of a different intelligence, an intelligence with another source and structure, these figures are attempting to arrest this way of being and are (at times recklessly) attempting to remain in touch with the inextricable mutuality of human danger and suffering, yes, but also of pleasure and joy. If suffering and danger are no longer mutual (and exactly to that degree, I’d argue), all that’s left is happiness and, in whatever ways and to whatever degree, these figures have pretty much foresworn that posture. On the other hand, I mean it when I say that, very often, what one imagines to be “the danger” down the block, across town, across the ocean, or, at times, living next door—or closer—may just be one’s only hope.
So what I’m after is to explore a kind of intelligence that refuses to act smarter than its life, the kind of mind that refuses to be dislodged from—instead operates by circulating through—its body, and in circulation among others.
I think it comes back to the epigraph from Sontag, “a kind of theatre not of characters, but of intense transpersonal emotions borne by characters.”
If it isn’t plain enough in “Critique of Contemporary Poetry,” I’d say the manifesto for this would be “Thirstlove.” You know: “the closed (rhymes with toast) crease between the real. . .”, “Acclimate, in eyepulse curette the light”, “Sibilant, in tongue-touch curette the sound.” The real noose made of metaphoric rope.
Lastly, to pick up on the sense of “dumbstruck” you note. I hear you to mean that the listener, confronted with a voice they’re not sure how to place, has a hard time knowing what to say or think in response to these pieces? Yes? If so, ok. And, can we allow that “dumbstruck” is something very different than “numbstruck?” I don’t think that’s a word but it should be. If I’m understanding what you’re getting at correctly, maybe what I’ve done is to try to load up utterances with layers (at times competing or colliding layers) of address so that the obvious cues for how to respond aren’t really so clear. At that point, with the usual responses foreclosed, one has to simply say that next thing. So, maybe “dumbstruck” is the first step toward a new conversation? And, maybe one’s sense of knowing where one is and what to say next depends upon a naturalized and normalized state of being “numbstruck?”
Recently, last night in Athens, actually, I found myself side-swiped by the emotional force of the “Verbatim Palestine” sequence, I thought I knew where the piece was coming from and going to. I was wrong and a whole wave of things splashed over me as if from behind. . . it did feel like being awoken from a kind of numbstruck dream. I thought, “ok, there you are, now how do you keep it together and make it through the rest of the poem!?”
4) “Verbatim Palestine: June 2, 2014” recalls an encounter on an airplane with a “retired doctor from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.” In the course of a conversation which opens up a gulf of (mis)understanding regarding the situation in whatever “Middle East” Palestine represents, the poem achieves an early if not premature epiphany: “you realize that almost every word he said needs redefinition.” One of the great virtues of Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO is that it does not exempt itself from this same necessity. And yet this remains something of an open question in this book: how dependent upon a dialectic must that redefinition be?
Hm. The sense of encounter I’m discussing above didn’t happen on that airplane. Possibly it happened later when I tried to write a little bit about my conversation with that doctor. Possibly, I imagine, if he ever read about our conversation, maybe that piece might allow him to encounter it then. That’s the hope. Does it depend upon a “dialectic”? I’m not sure. I’m pretty certain that any sense of encounter depends upon a non-resolving interplay of—tension between and within—multiple contending trajectories, forces, vectors, or what have you. I think of sections 12 and 13 of Adrienne Rich’s “Contradictions: Tracking Poems.” 12 begins: “Violence as purification: the one idea.” 13 begins: “Trapped in one idea, you can’t have your feelings, / feelings are always about more than one thing.” Athwart her longing for “one simple, huge idea” to account for the totality of world and self, she concludes the poem noting that “the feelings come back in their shapes / and colors conflicting they come back / they are changed”.
5) For me, the characteristic expressive mode of Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO is a long, syntactically impacted line. The book offers many variations on this line and what it can both accommodate and accomplish. Throughout, that line is as much an image—a shape, a space, a lyric stroke—imprinted upon my imagination as any of the overt sounds, sights, tastes, textures etc. the poems here offer. For me, that line, as a prosodic composition, is itself an image of improvisation. Does improvisation have a syntax?
I do think these lines are growing longer, some of them are so enjambed that from across the room one would think they’re paragraphs. I do think of them as improvisations. My other new book is titled Who Can Afford to Improvise? The phrase comes from James Baldwin’s warning not to confuse the work of Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Coltrane and others as “improvised” and so somehow as romantically and naively “spontaneous.” You know, it’s not some stereotyped rendition of “I Got Rhythm.” Of the hard won and perilous precision of these artists’ work, in 1979, Baldwin asked, “who can afford to improvise, at those prices?” So I use the word with far more caution than abandon, with rather more solemnity and hesitation than celebration.
For me, I guess improvisation eludes its prose paraphrase but, nonetheless, I think it amounts to “looking inward” in order to look outward. In our lives, the world enters us, most profoundly in things and people we love, when we’re wide open. When we’re open and in love (with a person, with life itself) all kinds of things enter us, more of the world enters us than we can possibly attend. But, it’s also very likely that the world doesn’t care if we’re open or not, it permeates us all the same; and then love could be an index for our willingness to try to recognize the world in ourselves.
So, via the imagination, one then finds the world that’s taken up residence in us, in the body, and attempts to make what’s found there articulate, available to the world in some way.
This is very difficult work; available (as used directly above) meaning that the reader or listener sees the work, its subjects, and finds themselves involved in that world at the same time. A lyric can’t be observed, still less can it be endured. The aim is that the work isn’t merely observed or endured, but encountered. Self-exposure isn’t as easy as running up on some people and haranguing them, you know? Consider the flasher in his raincoat in the park. He isn’t exposing himself to anyone at all. The lecturer droning on and on, she isn’t talking to anyone. Maybe what I’m talking about is akin to the difference between being hugged (which is very common) and being held (far more rare). I’ve been conscious for years about some feeling of writing as “holding a reader’s eye,” of speaking as taking place very close to the ear, and I’ve been working in fear of abusing or at least failing that trust. I think the line in my work has evolved out of a search for that sense of a caring encounter. Of course, it’s not always gentle.
6) Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO bears a dedication to your son Milan. Several of the poems in the book seem concerned, at least in part, with a kind of generational “signal loss.” “As I stood beneath the [Confederate] flag flying outside a bar, two young black men walked past. I gestured to them and they paused. I waved up at the flag and said, ‘Can you believe this shit?’ They smiled, waved me off, ‘Man, that’s just noise.’” (“Cross-Currents Across”); “My father turns, watching Bujan disappear, and then he laughs. My thought: I don’t think I’ve heard that laugh in English. Then he turns and stares at me with a look open enough for me to walk inside, arrange the furniture, and sit wherever I want. I know I’ve never seen that look in English.” (“Verbatim Routes: January 3, 2004”); “When Milan was in the fourth grade we were driving on Finley Street, projects on both sides of the street, and Milan: there go the ghetto… And me: what the hell does that mean, man?” (“Verbatim Breaking News: March 25, 2011”). What would this book most desire from future readers — that is, indivduals alive right now but who, for any number of reasons, are not yet in a position to read this book?
Generational, yes, but for me it’s most basically interpersonal. And, I don’t think of it as a loss but as the needed mis-alignments by which we learn about what the world is for us, for someone else, and how many ways there are to be in that world. I think the generations must not agree. We can’t. We don’t live in that kind of world even if such a world ever existed. Way back, in Paraph of Bone, in “Confessions of a Piano Roll Lover,” I remember the lines:
. . .Paralyzed
by that mute
flash, God-kissed white-out
that keeps generations from fucking
up too bad.
My figure in “Crosscurrents Across” isn’t really critical of the young men’s practical wisdom about not getting caught up in the “noise” of daily and pervasive civic racism in the South. In fact, I’m certain that it’s a remnant of a deep, multi-generational wisdom. It’s a version of the old Bre’r Wolf and Tar Baby story. In one way, one would certainly be smart not to go looking for it which my figure is kind of doing. A few sections later, he says “And I know it’s good sense to go with no noise. Otherwise, we give our lives to these people who don’t even want to be people.” On the other hand, he wonders about the costs “of the energy it takes not to notice.” In one way or another, let’s face it, those costs have compelled millions of black people to leave the South. And he wonders about the costs of that askance posture to the people who maintain it. It’s an open question; noticed or not, it’s an open wound.
Milan’s “that means that’s where the mean kids get on the bus. . .” speaks with an authority that comes from having been at eye-level with experience, a childhood is intensely packed with that kind of authority. Learning to “back away” and tune out the noise is something one learns by degrees over years and years, it’s part of the perils of what Americans take to be “maturity” or “adulthood,” the pose of autonomy, you know, lean the seat back and drive that transcendent (12 year-old) Lexus. It’s also a survival tactic; like all medications, it carries its side effects.
My traveler in Inferno has something of Hayden’s alien from “American Journal” in him but, at the same time, he’s very often at home—both in public and private—whatever that means and he’s often wondering [sic] through experiences with people he loves, people who are very important to him from whom he can’t be detached.
7) Amiri Baraka once wrote: “New Black Music is this: Find the self, then kill it.” As I, in my own whiteness, understand it, what Baraka is describing in the music of important avant-gardists such as Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman et al. is not a religious self-abnegation (except perhaps accidentally). Instead, Baraka is identifying what he considers to be a revolutionary act this music incites against the psyche, one that history has already transformed into a militarized zone (qua Fanon). Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO itself also wrestles with the inherent violence of liberatory propositions. “I think how much in our bodies, our action, our syntax is somewhere, simulated-somehow somewhere gunfire” (“Cross-Currents Across”); “we watch / the eye attack itself / faced with evidence / which is the lack of vision” (“Because Trane Would Have Been 87 Today: September 23, 2013”); “Maybe first cup had to be / broken skull?” (“Nook And Boon (Of Rock And Hard Places): ‘Contemplation’”) If this book could respond to Amiri Baraka, how might it?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the layers after layers of violence we’re buried in. How readily we call any concentrated, collective effort a battle or a war, “War on Poverty,” “War on Drugs,” “War on Terror,” this is obvious, of course. The term for committed participation and belief takes its turn of phrase from mass suicide, “drink the Kool Aid.” I remember being mesmerized by those images of Jonestown as a child in the 70s; I remember noticing that so many of those bodies were black. I think there’s a terrible confession in that these are our metaphors, our idioms, for collective action and purpose.
Columbus Day just passed. I thought of the “discovery” of America and its flip-side, the conquering of a continent. And, of how we’ve been led to think of one and not the other to preserve space for whatever ideals. Ok. So, as a consequence, what if our very notion of discovery is really a cloaked kind of conquering? Then, what of “self-discovery?” Are we taught, encouraged to seek and search for selves or are we prompted and conditioned to conquer them? And, how do we know which is which? So, you know, I think Baraka urges a ritualized “killing” of the conqueror self. Poems by Nikki Giovanni, Larry Neal, and many others followed suit during the late 60s and early 70s, at least. Baraka was very brilliant at this; he was also very good at discovering selves, but usually only after he’d killed them. In his autobiography, for instance, he freely tabulates the errors and shortcomings in his previous approaches while, in a way, remaining ever-blind to the next wreckage enacted as the future became the present. The point of our sense of “history,” I’d like to think, can be to better deal with the storms ahead rather than to debrief the last catastrophe.
The opening lyric sequence in Visiting Hours. . . takes place in the intimate lives of two survivors of gun violence. In that gunfire sentence that you mention above, I’m surveying all the ways that images of guns and gunfire permeate our consciousness and take up root in our bodies; it’s an ecological toxin. At some levels of our lives, at least, we’re urged to prefer “shooting” things to touching things or people, maybe even to seeing them. We point lenses and rifle sights as prompts for what it means to “see.” I think there’s a violent collapse of human reality when we take gun sights, even cameras, as our surrogate eyeballs. Seeing can also be a form of touching; this sense is far from always benign, of course, but it does beat blasting holes in things from long range. In some ways, it also beats the abstract physics of glass in lenses and pixels. I’d like to think we can find other ways to discover ourselves and each other without miming the postures (internal and external) of conquerors. I’d like to think we can go beyond “evidence” for our version of lived reality; that we don’t have to put ourselves and each other “on trial” (another American obsession) in order to find anything out. Evidentiary force is nearly as violent as gunfire; phenomena and persons sundered from their environs and made to “stand trial,” to account for themselves and their whereabouts in so-called “objective” terms. The brutality of these institutional forums have been on display for decades. When object becomes a verb meaning the act of transforming a living thing (a subject, a citizen) into an object, “I hereby object you,” and that has absolutely happened, it’s time to re-think some things.
In “Verbatim Palestine. . .”, and in the Coltrane sequence, I’m exploring what it might mean to return to seeing its human capacity and vulnerability, you don’t get one without the other. We see with “our lives,” with the point of view our sense of experience has invested us with, just as much as we see with our “eyes.” A camera is blind in this sense; it has no life. So, in as much as we mistake a photograph for something seen, photography for what seeing is, we perpetrate a serious injury upon what we take human “sight” to be, its capacities, its responsibilities.
We think these kinds of “evidentiary” forms and forums make us safe. But, they cost a lot and those costs are rarely featured. Ask Bryan Stevenson or Michelle Alexander about the massive force of those naturalized forms of institutional violence. And, we internalize that force as certainly as we breathe in the exhaust if we walk behind a bus.
I think the discoverer/conqueror, the gunshot as the end of signification, as the end of contingent meaning, as well as the “evidentiary” as the key to what’s true and real, in fact, all fit together in a war against multiplicity, ambiguity and vulnerability. I think this war is raging “behind the lines” in many private and public venues of our world. Maybe it’s a war on the dialectics alive or at work in all venues of multiplicity, ambiguity, and vulnerability. At bottom, I think the target of this violence might be the imagination itself; that portion or function of human reality that is never within our grasp, that which “can’t be shot.” Meditating on Ayler and Trane and Archie Shepp, Baraka’s revolutionary verse sought a cathartic and totalized liberation of that energy, a re-birth. I don’t believe in that kind of gesture. But, I think that utopian wish beats its mainstream alternatives (Hilary or Trump?!): touchdowns or drone strikes.
8) What is exposed and what is circumscribed by a jazz allusion?
By jazz allusion I think you mean an allusion to music? To a song or an artist? I think what I intend in those moments has a lot to do with my intense urge to share what I hear, to have someone else listen and to listen in that company. So, always, as soon as I hear something new that I love, my first impulse is, of course, to listen again but right there with that is the impulse to share this listening. That means I’m asking my family to listen and that I’m e-mailing and texting the link to the song to friends. I think the allusions mimic that urge.
But, also, I’ve said music provides me with a point of view, I can go into a song and look back at my world. And, so, much of my work takes place in a musical environment, it charts and explores the world I’m in as I recognize it in a certain song or group of songs. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes that a photo of a landscape must be “habitable, not visitable.” He writes, “It is quite simply there that I should like to live.” I think music functions in this way, provides a space to be, to aspire to be in as well as to recognize having been in. One of Ralph Ellison’s best essays on music was called “Living with Music,” in 1955 Billie Holiday told Jimmy Rowles “I have to live with my tunes. When I sing a song it’s got to mean something to me. I got to live with it. Otherwise I can’t sing.” Of certain landscapes, and comparing them to the elusive and mysterious certainty of the maternal body, Barthes writes of the longing to inhabit as being “fantasmatic,” of his being “certain of having been there or of going there.” So, my allusions mostly take place according to, as an acknowledgement of, this kind of relationship to a song or artist, of my having lived with them or even in them, of my having come from them. And, I think they’re a way of sharing, of saying to a reader, you can go there too, maybe you came from there too.
9) One of the poems in this collection is entitled “With Worm For Worm The Bird: A Cosmological Filibuster.” Filibuster, for this reader, connotes notions of endurance (pink sneakers optional), resistance, desperation and excess. A filibuster seems anti-poetic in an important sense as well: language in a filibuster is perfunctory, a mere measure of time wasted / delay imposed between actor and inevitable. And filibusters can also “go too far,” as acknowledged by the 112th Congress of the United States. What does a poem “going too far” entail for you as a poet?
Well, I think Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno is a kind of anthology of approaches, as well. And, I think that readers of one kind of piece in the book might be less fond—or think way worse—of others. So, “With Worm For Worm The Bird” is my shot at a poetics that takes its cue from its own formal properties, in a way it’s an anti-Verbatim poem. It most definitely goes too far by going nowhere. But, at the same time, after hundreds of readings during the writing of the poem and since, I find myself time and time again taken by the repetitive cadences and descending spirals in the language. I think of it as a voice sculpture; to achieve a successful reading of that poem—which I’ve only achieved a few times, I need to practice!—is to sculpt the voice into a rhythmic and musical form that I like very much. I think of it as a speech like Lucky’s soliloquy in Waiting for Godot.
10) When Pound declared that “poetry is news that stays news,” he was issuing this statement in a world in which “the news” was primarily a print phenomenon, and therefore both a slower and more hierarchical proposition than it is now. And while the newspaper and the television both make appearances in Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO, overall the book seems much less concerned with “the news” as a monolithic medium (and, in the great majority of communities of color, that is far from the case anyway) than as a public space, a kind of commons in spite of itself. How is “the news” an interpersonal sphere comparable to the one poetry offers?
Newspapers and other media sources began to make appearances in my poems along with the Verbatim form. Winners Have Yet to Be Announced takes its title, for example, from the obituary for Donny Hathaway in The Washington Post. It’s clearly a gesture to a discourse outside the “lyric” space. History. At one point, I remember the way I was placing newspaper articles, headlines, and precise dates in poems became associated with hostages in my mind. I thought of how hostages were photographed holding the newspaper to prove that they were still alive, or recorded while a news broadcast was playing in the background. And the positioning of a subject alongside evidence of a date, even a time of day, carried that sense of living proof, “this is still alive.” As with the rest of these formal attributes, really, this wasn’t something I decided but more like something I noticed after it had been happening, kept with it until, at some point, some notion of why I was doing it appeared. The “proof of being alive” sense of the news in poems has been enough for me; I haven’t really thought about it further (outside of poems) but it has continued.
One of the most recent poems I’ve published—it’ll be out in the fall issue of The American Poetry Review—was written in the back of my little hardback copy of Roberto Bolaño’s A Little Lumpen Novelita while the images of civil unrest in Baltimore played on the TV. Title: “Written April 27, 2015 in the Blank Pages / at the Back of Bolaño’s A Little Lumpen Novelita.” I tell students that often I think reading is merely “dreaming about writing” in the same way that, when one dreams, the brain has a mechanism that mostly prevents our bodies from acting out our actions in the dream. So, reading is writing in everything but the physical moving of the hand. . . I think that’s why so many of my poems are drafted in the margins and in the blank pages of books I’m reading. . . In this poem, I decided to record the date and situation of the drafting of the poem in / as its title. Maybe I’ll continue with that because I like the poem, actually it became two poems. We’ll see.
Ed Pavlić is the author of five books of poetry, of which Let’s Let that are not Yet: INFERNO (selected by John Keene for the 2014 National Poetry Series) is the most recent. His ‘Who Can Afford to Improvise?’: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners is also being published this Fall by Fordham University Press. Pavlić has been awarded the Honickman First Book Prize (judged by Adrienne Rich) and received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard College. Prominent in the field of African and African-American research, he is also widely respected for his scholarly works. Pavlić teaches English at the University of Georgia and resides in Athens, Georgia with his family.