A conversation between Sam Riviere and Eric Amling on his debut book From the Author’s Private Collection.
In From the Author’s Private Collection, Eric Amling’s debut, poems are conceived of as spaces that can be renovated or dismantled, inhabited or evacuated. His central motif is the tastefully deserted room that sketches a personality while outlining its disappearance – Eric has left the book, imagining “some kind of systematic vaudeville act / Where you’re reborn as a fantastic rumour” (‘Heir Apparent’). Although the first person abounds, its elusive handling feels like an artist’s visible absence at an exhibition: as he writes, “It’s dangerous to get too autobiographical; there’s a radiation to it” (‘Ill Estates’). In this conversation, we search for the personality behind the aesthetic.
SR: I feel we are the same age. For me your work references a barely pre-digital era (my formative period), before the overlit values of the digital age blasted away the subcultural dimness. I’m not talking about nostalgia for tape decks and polaroid cameras. It’s almost an odour (for me, hashish, old magazines, amplifiers, Miller beer), which perhaps connects to a taste for obscurity, and the sort of faded mystique which your poetry does so well to capture – in ‘nights of besieged leisure’. Does any of this feel relevant to your experience of writing the book?
EA: Yes, during a majority of the time writing this book I was living a subtle double life. So, like it or not, much of what I was doing couldn’t be put into a spotlight, tagged, and all-inclusive. I was operating with a dim nimbus. This would be my guess where the sense of mystique comes from. I tend to approach experiencing the world from a more analogue than digital sense anyhow. I’m personally glad I grew up with the internet as an assistant and not a superior. I believe in privacy.
SR: Another double life you lead is that of a collagist, an almost aggressively analogue practice. The striking feature of your poetry is the intensity of its image-making – lines like ‘The jet black pussy of a panther’, or, ‘Midnight waves like a dozen wedding gowns tumbling towards you’, seem cut out of some impossibly plush dream magazine, and have taken up permanent wallspace in my head. Would it be obvious of me to connect these methods – do they perhaps point to some broader aesthetic priority?
EA: It’s undeniable that they are connected. I have developed a habit of saying to myself exactly what I’m seeing – i.e. ‘cool keypad with pubic hair’ and that goes for when my living room floor is covered in mid-progress collages. Satin davenport, Speedo, leather whip – these words look beautiful on the page and I want to see them there. I feel like my mind has become so scattered but this is probably more a modern condition than anything else. Maybe this results in the poems appearing collaged together from errant multi-tasking. But a plush dream magazine; now that is an acute description of the book, and one hopes–like in the collage portrayals–a multitude of emotions are evoked. For all the soft focus and mood lighting the images contain—or as I say in the book, ‘a placid pond with many bodies’— the aesthetic is not a priority, I’d like to write a simple line in the future that isn’t wearing its style on its sleeve.
SR: Your poems evoke this distinct unease that I recognise from commercial districts and reality television. Sometimes it’s as if life is already collage, and you simply have to notice it, or copy its patterns? I’m interested in whether you’re aware of a process of disruption and deliberate contrasts coming into play when you work on a poem or a collage…Because to me there is something figurative, fluid even, in the arrangements of your work in both mediums – the intention seems somewhat different to technique of ‘clashing’ often associated with collage.
It also makes me think about how one of the most consistent pleasures of the book is its use of paired words, sort of branded nouns you often deploy as titles – ‘Vague Efficiency’, ‘Ill Estates, ‘Liquid Assets’ – there’s something elusive about these constructions, even if they might be pieced together from billboards on a train journey. I mean I recognise them, but it’s as if the co-ordinates have slipped. It reminds me a bit of David Berman’s poetry, his ear for place-names that could be real or imagined (‘Gnarled Heritage’; ‘Coral Gables) – we’ve talked before about Actual Air (another one of those phrases) being a quietly influential book. Did Berman’s poetry alert you to this or any other stylistic tendencies at all?
EA: I wish I had a better answer about technique or something asserting my intentions other than that is how I taught myself to write. I’m looking at my notes and I know there is something I’m saying in there, it’s a matter of finding the connections. I remember when I first learned that atoms never touch nor die. I convinced myself an atom from George Washington or a dinosaur toenail were a part of the plastic in my remote control. So, yeah, in that way life is already a collage.
I can’t speak for David here but after years of varying correspondence I feel like we share a desire to say something with one-hundred percent conviction knowing full well everything has a trap door. His poetry made me never look at a pile trash the same again. He can make you sentimental when talking about cat food. Taking the steely corporate jargon and adding an organic goo gives me comfort to think it’s then malleable. Maybe it’s a failure of mine to not be able to clearly tell you something I’d rather show you. Maybe poetry like this has gone the way of the portobello steak. Perhaps not; the poetry of Lisa Robertson brings me the imagery plus the education.
SR: If I tried to come up with alternative titles for the book, I think Leisure, or maybe Vacationer, would be at the top of the list. From the Author’s Private Collection emphasises the curatorial aspect of the work – a well-managed space of highly selective content – ‘where I forgive myself’. The poems are very interior, kind of hothouse – there’s a little of Des Esseintes in their manipulation of synthetic environments – and they seem to take place in locations wholly detached from the vistas of everyday life. The poems seem almost like tabernacles, ‘mobile interiors’, and inevitably in these places, things begin to feel like stand-ins for external presences –’shadows in my forest of innuendos’. This relates to the enjoyment of privacy maybe. But nonetheless, is there a risk in the work becoming too insulated from the ‘outside world’?
EA: It’s funny you mention ‘hothouse’ because that was on the table as a title for the book. I was slowly going through the interior design collections of Terence Conran, his trilogy of The Kitchen Book, The House Book and The Bed and Bath Book (which the cover image comes from) during the time of writing FTAPC. These curated interiors that convey the personality of the occupant along with the eerie atmosphere of their absence. So I can see how the poems have this parlour room quality. The poems are insulated. They are private. You have a narrator, or narrators, reporting on the world from the safety of a bedroom. I think the book, often referred to as ‘dead-pan’, or ‘bafflingly coherent’ is at the heart a sad collection. The work is also cowardice in not acknowledging the ‘real issues’ of the outside world. It is not political. It is a soliloquy with the only human interaction coming in the form of eroticism. If I can be completely candid with you I didn’t realize how alone I was until reading the final manuscript.
SR: I agree the poems are private – at the same time they don’t appear to be ‘confessional’ at all – as one poem says, ‘it’s dangerous to get too autobiographical; there’s a radiation to it.’ Given what you’ve noted about valuing privacy, and the way your poems feel like little mezzanines constructed over and above the strictly personal, what’s your stance on the use of material from a poet’s personal life? Is it possible to view life coldly as ‘material’…would you approve of that?
EA: The voice in my work is not how I interact in my vis-à-vis personal life. I mostly keep to myself but when I’m around people I’d say I’m gregarious and extremely forward. The way I internally process possibly comes from growing up in a very quiet home. It was Yanni and the monotone truisms of Bob Ross. We got as wild as Fresca. As I say in the beginning of the book, ‘ninety-nine percent of what follows is true’, so I’m not entirely holding back information but your life isn’t just about you, and what you say can compromise someone else. Privacy is sexy. But if you ask me I’ll tell you: The first time I had an orgasm was into my uniform penny loafers next to the bed. I didn’t know what to do with it! There is no way around it; served hot or cold: Life is material.
SR: By the end of the book it feels almost as if the author has disappeared – the poems are like rooms we search for clues regarding his disappearance. There’s something vaguely noir-ish about it. Is feeling a degree of distance helpful, either for you as the author or for a reader here?
EA: I’m just simply enjoying the view from where I’m standing. If I had been conscious the book morphed into a literary Ikea for the reader I’d worry I’m being a poor host. But sometimes being a good host means not demanding the guest’s attention and let them work the room.
SR: What you write about the book being ‘not political’ makes me think of Ashbery and his unassailable ability to ‘turn away’ from that question. Perhaps the political turns out to be here, in the risk of not stating a political position? Silence remains charged, it can be interpreted in many ways – in a poem it has an aesthetic value, but could it be as good a response as any to these matters?
EA: It’s difficult for me to say anything with one hundred percent conviction. Probably explains my hesitation to add to the hiss of ultra-education social media has come to provide. One of the enjoyable aspects of making art is the license to contradict yourself. I believe in politically charged work. I believe in the awareness and betterment it can bring to our culture. But I don’t think art has to be overtly political for it to be aware and engaging. This all sounds obvious. I’m simply wanting to expand my bubble.
SR: I feel like you’re in danger of having the last word on Ashbery in some respect when you write “It is not so hard / to accept meaninglessness / acceptance is very meaningful”. Has Ashbery been significant for you? How about Wallace Stevens, whose highly decadent images your writing sometimes reminds me of too?
EA: When I first started reading Ashbery I remember feeling hypnotized. If you’ve ever met someone that just had a unique way of talking and you would gladly sit and listen to them ramble, waiting for these peak moments of clarity, making little cave paintings in your mind, John’s poetry frequently engages with me that way.
Stevens and I share a passion for long walks and large desks.
SR: The book does something that’s hard to describe, in capturing a sense of time flattening-out in ways somehow connected to image making technology and the use of cultural icons from the recent past. For example, when I think about the gap between 2005 and 2015, compared to the one between 1985 and 1995, it becomes clear we’re looking at different kind of timelapse. The last decade feels like a glitch, a CD skipping or something. How dated…I don’t know, maybe this is subjective? In a collage all eras are contemporaneous, and in some way your poems take me to a ‘1981 at the end of the mind’. A year I know yet never really experienced. What’s your work’s relationship to its past(s)?
EA: There aren’t many references in the book to current music or something a friend texted me or how I’m high and on a right-swiping campaign becuz lol. Maybe that antiquates the work but so does a Lana Del Rey reference for me. The poems are referring to a very recent past, one that is contemporary and capable of living in without the obvious call signs. As far as I can tell we’ve spent the last ten years in a 85-95 fetish net. But I think I’ll always be OK with pink neon. You mentioning this makes me wonder—aside from the opening sequence being titled 2010-2015—when a reader would place the work, time-wise.
SR: What are you reading right now?
EA: The Collected Eileen Myles and Frank Stanford. The reissue of Eve Babitz’s, Eve’s Hollywood. Lucretius,The Nature of Things. But, mainly looking at manuscripts for my small press venture, After Hours, Ltd., starting up in 2016.
SR: For the uninitiated, what can they expect from your poetry?
EA: Smooth ambling and sweet intros.
Romanticism that leads to futility and even absurdity.
Sam Riviere is the author of the poetry collections 81 Austerities (Faber, 2012), Standard Twin Fantasy (Eggbox, 2014) and Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (Faber, 2015). He is currently writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh.
Eric Amling is the author of From the Author’s Private Collection (Birds, LLC) and editor of After Hours, Ltd, a small press venture in association with The Song Cave.
Eric Amling will be reading with fellow Birds, LLC author Niina Pollari at the Poetry Project on Monday, January 25th at 8pm.
More information on From the Author’s Private Collection.