We’re continuing with our National Poetry Month daily poet interviews, and today’s featured poet is the remarkable Brian Blanchfield! Stay tuned all month for more featured poets.
1) Do you think poetry is still important, relevant, and vibrant in today’s culture?
Important in. Irrelevant to. Vibrant notwithstanding.
But I guess I should elaborate. I mean, it depends on where we’re talking, but if we are referring to “popular U.S. culture,” of course poetry is mostly a kind of joke in the media, subject to parody on Jon Stewart or Portlandia, ridiculed precisely for its supposed atavism, its resistance to adapt to what twerks and trends in 2014.
Which is peculiar to me, since the best poetry often operates now as a kind of sentient, sensitive filter of culture. A sort of translucent scrim that hurts and agitates and shimmers and thrills, bearing the bright light through. Jena Osman’s wonderful Corporate Relations is on my desk right now. And Chris Salerno’s ATM. And Dodie Bellamy’s TV Sutras. These three books, really at random selection, and recent reads, Prageeta Sharma’s Undergloom and Chris Nealon’s forthcoming Heteronomy—all of them in wonderfully different ways address the problem in your question: whose is “today’s culture,” and where?
Because there really isn’t a monolithic thing such as “our culture” anymore (since increasingly each of us curates her own culture, filtering out all but the media and news and stimuli that appeal, self-selecting and subscribing to any easy familiarity), poets are often the ones most sensitive to this absence, the voices who stage the crisis of the Commons and demand to know what it is—if anything—that connects us, what we owe to one another. Corporate Relations, a good follow-up to Osman’s Public Figures—which regarded her fellow Philadelphians from the eyes of their memorial statuary—begins with an excerpt from Justice Souter’s dissent in Citizens United and rehearses the logic by which corporations are persons for certain intents and purposes. Who we is, who we are, and how we recognize each other, on what plaza or by what app, united by what common event or experience, is the subject of the most interesting and relevant (to me) poetry right now. I think of this great conceit in Chris Nealon’s book-to-be; he keeps Grindr on as his poem “The Dial” develops and comments and addresses friends imploringly, it runs under the poem and dials up affinities to “elect,” (fifty feet away and likewise looking into his phone), Pandora-style it shops for and presents product “more like” others in the “search history.” Meantime the poem is notes toward a sharper, firmer solidarity in resistance of capitalist subjection. That’s a poem I need.
2) What makes you want to write poetry?
Different answers on different days. But today it’s: good old defamiliarization (ahem) of language, smudging and scotching it as a supposed transparent medium, unsettling and dishabituating the daily bread of it. Availing it to possibility as big as being. Propositionizing, putting words into play, as Barthes would have it. Discovery, pleasure in the lead.
In a sense, the poems in my new book A Several World, though they take on larger specific tasks and topics, operate a kind of instrument (like an accordion, a bellows?) that works by alternating: between aerial vantage and on-the-ground surface conditions, between we all and each, between then and now, between ahem and amen, and maybe that describes most literary operations; but it’s a kind of fort-da play or respiration that keeps the creation happening, and that I became conscious of midway through writing this book. Some of my recent (and amateur) experience with dance and compositional improv contributes to my understanding of this mechanism, the perspectival switchbacking. And, so did living in the valley town of Missoula, where this book came together.
3) Tell us about one poet who has greatly influenced you as a writer and thinker.
One poet is harder than ten. I’ll say Laura Riding. Her long poem “Memories of Mortalities” was and is a revelation to me. And though I think no one has sufficiently remarked its spiky, godless recasting of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” into twentieth-century girlhood, I like the poem even more for unfashionably giving an account of self in an era of impersonality poetics. Like no one else since maybe Piers Plowman, she enlivens abstractions into players (time and paternality and subsequence, e.g.) in a kind of dollhouse of familiars, and the players enact the “slow grammaring of self” that the poem very nearly actualizes. The language is stung, awake and alive in Laura Riding as in few other writers. By the end, when the headstrong speaker announces “I saw I should have to go back / and write my story myself…as the story grows too different to speak of / in the way the world speaks” we are prepared for and cheering the transformation. It’s angry and upset and swollen writing, pounding, uncompromising. As operatic as Hart Crane but more punk. The mix of theatricality, intellect, music, and rubbed-raw personal umbrage make it a go-to return-to.
4) Tell us about one lesser-known poet whom you’d like more people to know about.
I’ve written elsewhere recently about Merrill Gilfillan, who I think is the most sure-handed poet writing in English, so I won’t mention him (much) again.
Gerrit Lansing is someone whom I think too few people reckon with as a poet. Robert Duncan pales in comparison, if you ask me. Most who know Lansing know him mostly as a key node in literary history, friend of Charles Olson and editor of the influential magazine SET in the Sixties. But I think his poetry is extraordinary; reading him is like finding like the missing link between Hart Crane and John Wieners, and then again between Wieners and someone like D.A. Powell. (There are fifty years of poems in his collected, Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth.) The poems are metaphysical and built, constructed like Crane’s, and also crabbed and skeletal, bodied, and frequently very sexy, candidly queer. Frisky in a foxhole, more than one of them. Occasionally mythic and even cosmic, and still expertly casual.
5) How do you feel about poetry in the age of social media?
Grumpy, mostly. I’m sorry to say.
Bill Knott’s death was “trending” on Twitter a few weeks ago. Hashtag memento mori.
Apparently, a certain conceptual poet extended her poetics of appropriation into Facebook a couple weeks back when she re-posted a more lyric poet’s “status update” as her own: ‘hi everybody, my book with Norton is coming out soon and I have a poem forthcoming in The Paris Review’—or something. Except in that context, the appropriative act devolved quickly into adolescent bullying—because, as weak and mediated as a “status update” is, its performance is not art, it’s identity; and, therefore, its appropriation is confined to that arena as well. I know about the incident only because I had dinner with some poets after a reading in LA; I think they discussed the “scandal” of it for twenty minutes straight—people I otherwise really admire.
I’m not on Facebook or Twitter though I recognize why it would be useful to be. I’m not made for it, dispositionally, and feel short on time already. It has a homogenizing effect that frightens me. That particular currency of notice and notice of notice makes me feel lonesome and nervous.
I mean this interview, as, Janice, you and I discussed outside of the interview, is illustrative. Six pre-set questions, given to a number of poets, so that the results “might be in conversation,” as we say. Though I think it’s probably truer to say it makes us sortable, sortable by data points of poetics. But the point is, I miss you, if it’s you still who asked me these questions. I’m left seeing myself, profiling myself, without our mutual regard.
6) Share with us one of your recent poems and tell us about its context.
Here’s a poem, “Open House,” from A Several World. Originally published in The Poetry Project Newsletter, it appears early in my book and has a kind of indexical relationship to the rest of the book, gives a kind of map of passageways further on.
I wrote it on one of the last days I lived in Missoula, Montana, where I had a three-year visiting teaching gig. Missoula had very much become home, but moving away was a structural necessity, so we were preparing to do just that. My partner, the poet John Myers, and I sometimes write together, from a shared prompt or impulse, and on this morning, we decided—after an overnight storm—to walk the limited area north of the railroad tracks and simply inventory the wreckage until we met up, wherever that might be, then share the notes and descriptions and see where that would lead. As it happened, where we met up was at an open house a Prudential realtor was holding. Without consulting at all, we walked in together and began touring the place.
We came in here to pretend. Or, rather, they suffer a run on
faith who predicate their commission on windfall,
and that’s us. We saw an opening in situ.
The realtor was already inside the document we opened
and encouraged us to roam the levels, helping us to
imagine a family outgrew the rooms. Motivated,
she allowed. On spring days, a wind picking up, homosexuality
blows right into the sale of synthesis, and impresses, as if
we could explain. She entrusted herself exclusively
to the parlor floor, so we could call out, wherever we were
in the square footage, our running queries, like a family,
meanwhile prowling, meanwhile fitting our practices to
the built-ins—concrete slabs and formatting palettes at the wall
and window—meeting eyes in the walk-in until the term radiant
heating could flare, following by texture and temperature instinct
dimly understood, onto the balcony and into on-demand
water control panels, a room of them. To return respectively
where Wanda waited for candor going forward. We are two men
who can agree in murmurs there is no purchase
any more in Hart Crane, but we’d keep a room for him
called Eileen Myles. What is it about the pretense we belong here
that requires an agent? Or, is that the trouble, Wanda? To whom
to speak at the bank and about what not yet are we
prepared to say. We blew in notional. Somewhere in here
I once wrote some poems Eileen liked that Nijinsky could send
to his remote beloved and they demanded Diaghilev,
his signatory, the management, misunderstand the love
on tour at hotel intervals, the suite if not the marquee ever
in his name, remember, an imprimatur that effaces. One man,
another, and an other. Stamps his foot. Rigid valences
over the bayview, remember, in the same print as the drapes:
I drew them, then took that down and put it in
storage. Here, against the reclaimed material the builders
appropriated, and other disenfranchised phrases, it makes
a statement. Wanda, we weren’t faking exactly. Is it better to say
the cyclone fencing traffics in the paper trash the wind
found overnight or to have the wrappers spirited up against it?
We were merely on a walk we had predicated on commotion,
copyists no less than Bouvard and Pecuchet, no less prudential,
who needed only first to agree to fail in turn at every venture
except lifelong life together. In the follow-up,
I’ll need to admit my credit is better off undisturbed.
Apologist, archivist, agent, eminence, front, Wanda
there’s no room to call you muse. In the variorum, I had
this idea, upstairs and to the left. After dinner you’re welcome
to stay for coffee. Not far from here, strewn broadly,
we found a board game, and the penalty cards were prettiest.
What we do is turn them, escalating the damage
a player’d encounter, as a poem builds, or a bid, until his turns
are mortal, a chill Belle Islander, the thinkable tertium quid.
To reside, to inhabit, to dwell: did you know they’re all cognate
with staying? Wanda, together we have six thousand dollars.
Which, if it blew away, you might call some six thousand dollars.
Listen, pianissimo, the love of things irreconcilable.
That’s not us, not any more. But, we keep a room for it.
Brian Blanchfield is the author of two books of poetry–Not Even Then (University of California Press) and A Several World, (Nightboat Books, 2014)–as well as a chapbook, The History of Ideas, 1973-2012 (Spork Press) and a collection of essays, in progress: Onesheets, a finalist for a 2013 Creative Capital Innovative Literature grant. His recent work has appeared in The Nation, Chicago Review, The Brooklyn Rail, A Public Space, Lana Turner, The Paris Review, Web Conjunctions, Guernica, The Awl, and The Poetry Project Newsletter, among other journals and magazines. He has taught as core faculty in the graduate writing programs of Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, and at the University of Montana, Missoula, where he was the 2008 Richard Hugo Visiting Poet and, for the three subsequent years, fulltime visiting faculty. Since 2010 he has been a poetry editor of Fence. With his partner John, he lives out past the streetlights in Tucson, where he teaches poetry in The Honors College at the University of Arizona and runs the Intermezzo reading series at The Temple Lounge downtown.