Juliana Spahr’s That Winter the Wolf Came keeps coming up in conversations I have—which is to say its examined objects exist also as objects that fill, force their way into, constitute, or otherwise consistently disturb my life: class antagonisms, cops (and their poetics), protest, the academy and its relationship to the state, and something like hope (for a revolution to sweep it all away). That Winter the Wolf Came is Spahr’s latest book published earlier this year from Commune Editions. It has a cute red stripe down its side and a little wolf on the front.
JC: In the first section, ‘Transitory, Momentary,’ you write, for what is an epiphanic song if it doesn’t spill out and over the many that are pulled from intimacies by oil’s circulations. I love the materiality of this, how the return to oil is connected to the image of the refrain, how the return to a minor loss, a small uprising, is a way of saying something about the revolution. This material break is presented as very clear: there is no illusion that one is performing revolution alone by singing or writing or fucking, but that, rather, these scenes are informed by and embody its effects. Does this summation seem correct to you? And, if so, what can these small uprisings that pop up in That Winter the Wolf Came, or writing more broadly, say about, or strategize for, or otherwise inform revolution?
JS: Yes: Informed by and embodied by—thanks!
I feel as if it is an open question if these small uprisings can inform revolution. Or of course they do. But of course they often have nothing to do with it either. In terms of writing… ugh. I feel like every time someone says there are reasons to be hesitant about seeing a poem as “the thing” one should do to antagonize the state, some poet somewhere gets angry and takes to twitter. But as I understand it: poetry is mainly about supporting the status quo. Or 90 percent about this. And for sure, sometimes it is not. There is that potential 10 percent (or am I being too optimistic?). And some of that 10 percent shows up in close proximity to protest, like literally at a protest on a sign. And sometimes poems do things –call for revolution or critique racism—but despite this close proximity, as I understand it, it is at best a part of the ecosystem of antagonism, not the actual antagonism.
JC: In “Brent Crude” a character asks the-you-within-the-work, in response to a witness-like iambic pentameter ode for workers killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, do we need another BP poem? Later, in “Dynamic Positioning” we get, presumably, that very poem. I see That Winter the Wolf Came as not concerned with witness—being objective, outside, non-interventionist—but more a presenting of one person’s effects within direct involvement. By including a BP poem within That Winter the Wolf Came is your answer that we do need another BP poem?
JS: Not that we “need” one, but that one might exist just because BP continues to exist. That poem feels more descriptive than declarative to me. I did not think that it would play any role in the fight against big oil and deep-water drilling. I thought, “I live in a world that is made by oil and by deep-water drilling and I am eating oil all day long and touching it too” and so I wanted to begin to understand that. I didn’t think much about witness (as in the way that poetry often does point out atrocity) as I wrote this. Maybe I thought of it as autobiography.
JC: The tone of That Winter the Wolf Came has moments of honest sloganeering—all art either with the crowd or with the police. All art coming down to that simple divide—as well as more opaque imagery. “If You Were a Bluebird,” for instance, is comfortable situating the reader in half-page long strophes about hingemouth and anal fins. Why choose to foreground legibility when you do? Is there political or social urgency to being clear about certain things? Is there a necessity to obscure others?
JS: I like legibility. I think what has happened is this: I got trained in an avant-garde, in a modernist tradition. I got trained in this tradition in the various schools that I attended: Bard and SUNY Buffalo. And I left these schools with this idea that I was an experimental poet. And I was, thus, against lyric and confessionalism. The lines felt clear to me when I left SUNY Buffalo. And then I moved to Hawai‘i and I realized that divide was a story that described certain poetries on the continent, and not even all those poetries. And these were more just forms with histories rather than identity positions. One of the big debates in Hawai‘i was about clarity. I had sort of gotten this idea somehow in this training I received that clarity was a tool of official verse culture or something and thus wasn’t for me. And I got rid of that idea. There was at the time a really big debate about Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s work. It was similar, although more intense in many ways, to the debates that have come with Tony Hoagland’s work. They were debates about clarity somewhat. About what was being made clear. I am always trying to be clear. Sometimes it might come out as unclear, or obscure, because of that early training in the modernist tradition.
JC: In “It’s All Good, It’s All Fucked,” Non-Revolution is a romanticized or sexualized character for the speaker while also being a kind of stand-in for politics that have revolution as a possibility but only as a modified and negated possibility. Is Non-Revolution any non-revolutionary politics? A kind of post-left neo-liberal politics? A non-violent declaration or occupation? The it of it’s all good, it’s all fucked?
JS: Non-Revolution is in the most literal sense the various moments of disruption that have defined the bay area in the last ten years. From the Oscar Grant riots to Occupy Oakland (the two weeks of last year in response to Eric Garner/Michael Brown/Freddie Gray had not yet happened when I wrote that piece though they show up in “Turnt”). But behind it was an interest in how sometimes in an anti-colonial poetry the oppressed nation becomes the beloved. And while I am interested in this work, I often think about how I don’t want to write a love poem to a nation, especially this nation in which I have found myself born into. And so I was thinking what it might mean to write a love poem to things that contest the state. And that is Non-Revolution: these minor insurrectionary moments. And I wanted to not overestimate them, thus the “non-” part, and I also wanted to love them and acknowledge them as something, thus the “revolution” part.
JC: In the last section characters exchange texts of I love you as cars burn. I am a very sincere reader so I took this as solidarity. Do you see That Winter the Wolf Came as a kind of, and I say this as unpejoratively as possible, romanticizing of revolution? Or is there more irony to this?
JS: It is for sure a romanticizing of the moment in the moment. I want to be careful not to overestimate these moments. But I also want to not overestimate their aliveness. There is often this idea that “protest” culture should not be fun. That it should be dire if it matters. Or at best righteous. And I wanted to talk about these moments as having a party feel, a fun. And at the same time I wanted to say that is ok. The party part is part of it, part of that ecosystem, and is worth valuing.
JC: I read That Winter the Wolf Came around the same time as “What is Literary Activism” and its responses were happening at the Poetry Foundation. In a follow-up collective response you were involved with on Lana Turner the group-position was summarized as, we don’t think you transform the world by transforming literature, we think you transform the world and literature comes with it. When I read that I thought, inversely, one could say Tony Hoagland’s whiteness is more likely to be informed by the violence of cops than the systemic white supremacy of cops informed by Tony Hoagland’s poetics. Not that Tony Hoagland isn’t responsible or even at fault for some fucked up things, but that holding Tony Hoagland responsible doesn’t mean much if you unquestionably support cops. I’m wondering, assuming you’re on board with these characterizations, what then are the possible strategies of literature? If literature, like That Winter the Wolf Came, targeting itself internally is misdirection, and if literature can’t, ultimately or effectively, target an external enemy, what is it targeting?
JS: I think literature might not be doing much targeting? I don’t know. Again, I would see That Winter as a biographical project with a sort of aspirational attempts. As some thoughts I had about the now and some things I wish I could see happen out of this now. A sort of aspirational imagining. The “oil wars yet to come” of “Transitory/Momentary” I thought of as not-yet-happening. That poem “If You Were a Bluebird” attempts to imagine a sort of cross-ecosystem feminist insurrection. Even if one wants to be more measured and hesitant about the political possibilities of a poetry, it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t do it. Or one does many things all day long because they are interesting and/or pleasant and/or provocative.
In some ways I think the problem with those literary activism pieces were that while we are all probably united in our desire to not overestimate the impact of literature and/or reform of literary institutions as a meaningful activism on its own and in isolation, we probably have very different understandings of what it does do and also of the dangers around this. I personally am really hesitant to dismiss anyone involved in anti-colonial struggles who says literature is a productive medium for countering the way that colonialism destroys cultures. I wish those pieces said that. But I would be hesitant to say that without also pointing out how often these anti-colonial literatures can be used for neo-colonial concerns. There is, for sure, still a lot of work to be done to understand why literature can be anti-colonial at one moment and neo-colonial the next. But beginning to think about that relationship seems crucial if one takes literature seriously as a part of politics. I see those pieces as suggesting that there is a complicated history to the relationship between literature and the state (and by the state one has to also consider private foundations and not for profits who work with the state, often very directly). I keep thinking here of the how the idea of civic poetry seems to take on a special resonance around Cold War concerns. And when we ignore this, we risk calling some things literary activism that are antagonistic to dissent, to how we traditionally think of the term “activism.” And it is naïve to not notice the significant role that not just literature but also literary institutions (foundations; not for profits; higher education; etc.) have historically played in mollifying protest.
JC: After reading That Winter I’ve found myself characterizing poetry books into Crowd Poetics and Cop Poetics camps. We don’t need to shit talk poets—though I would love to shit talk poets—but I’m wondering what are the characteristics of Crowd Poetics vs. Cop Poetics?
JS: Ha. I keep wanting to call people “capitalist poets” when I get angry at them. I’m trying not to do something so dumb as that. But I do think that it is naïve not to realize that literature has played a significant role in various counter-insurgencies over the years. Or not only does the State Department want us to think that the best way to protest is to write a poem, but the state has a long history of supporting and promoting a literature and other cultural responses that mock or belittle various sorts of antagonism against the state.
That said, I think Rimbaud writes a great crowd poetics. I think Césaire does too in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. I think Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette also. I think these poets do interesting things with what sorts of humans show up in their poems.
When I think of a literature of a counter-insurgency, which is another way maybe to think of a cop poetics… so many examples, many writers that I like. Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion all belittle the uprisings of the 60s and 70s in ways that feel cop friendly rather than “complicated” to me (and I say that even as I have a sort measured love for Mailer and Didion). But those examples seem too easy, too obvious. I sometimes want to divide appropriative (sometimes called conceptual) work by its relationship to the documents of the state. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters is interesting to think about as a state poem, even though the Lennon and Jackson deaths are less state-y than the other examples. But for sure the deaths in Seven American Deaths and Disasters are not the deaths of someone in a crowd, not the figures that populate Rimbaud/ Césaire/Notley/etc. Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts is also an interesting example of a work composed of the language of the state, even as that piece is the language of a public defender and the humans in that work are of a very different socioeconomic class than Lennon and Jackson. Is it useful to think of Statement of Facts as a representation of the crowd from the perspective of the law, aka the cop? I don’t know. I haven’t figure that out yet. I have felt though when I have heard her read that work that if I was one of the women in that book that I would feel really shitty if I knew my uncle’s defense attorney was reading his side of the story about him raping me to a bunch of MFA attending poets as art. Other works that are appropriative, such as Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary or M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! or Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, all seem to be using state documents and appropriating them in critique. Is one cop and one crowd? Probably these categories are too cartoonish.