Rae Armantrout: Writing poems is, for me, a way of asking questions

Rae Armantrout is the author of sixteen books of poems, including Conjure (Wesleyan, 2020), Wobble (2018), a finalist for the National Book Award, Partly, New and Selected Poems (2016), and Versed (2009) which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010.  An “Art of Poetry” interview with Armantrout, conducted by Brian Reed, was published in The Paris Review in Dec., 2019. She is professor emerita at UC San Diego and currently lives in Washington State. 

1) Actuality

Please share your thoughts on the necessity of poetry during these hard times of the pandemic?

I’ve been under a pretty strict lockdown because I’m over 65. I feel sorry for those who live alone!. I seem to actually be writing more since there isn’t much else to do.  I’m lucky not to know anyone who has died of Covid 19.  As you know, the virus is pretty much out of control in the United States. There are so many reasons to be furious with Donald Trump and that is one of them. Thank heaven that evil clown has been voted out, but he’s doing as much damage as he can before he goes. That’s where we find ourselves, and, yes, our poetry reflects it one way or another. There have been journals and anthologies devoted to writing about these things. One good magazine, Conjunctions, is just out with an issue about solitude and loneliness during quarantine. I have several poems in it. My forthcoming book is called Threat Landscape.
I think some permanent changes will come from this experience. For instance, I imagine Zoom is here to stay. People have become used to meeting, giving readings, for instance, without traveling.  I think there will probably be less domestic air travel in the future. That will be good for the environment. But there is so much more we need to do.  I really wish the US would invest in highspeed rail the way Europe and Asia have, but I don’t hear any talk about that.

2) Ontology: Poetry

What does writing poetry mean to you? Has it always been like this?

I have so many answers to this, all of them more or less true. Poetry is a way of talking, or better yet singing, to myself. I started writing when I was a child. I was an only child and often pretty lonely. I adapted to solitude by reading and writing. I guess that prepared me for this year!
I can also tell you that writing poems is, for me, a way of asking questions. I tend to write when I’m puzzled by something. The poem moves towards what I don’t understand. It tends to remain open-ended because I want to share that moment of puzzlement with the reader.
It’s as if the poem is asking, “What caused that shadow?” or “What was that I saw moving out of the corner of my eye.”
Then again, I use poems to take apart and examine the language around us, especially the language that does us harm.
  All three of these things are true though they may not seem consistent.

3) Language Poetry

“Language poetry emphasizes the reader’s role in bringing meaning out of a work.” What are the dimensions to this statement?

The Language Poets started out as a group of young friends in the Bay Area and New York. The sentence you quote about language poetry “emphasizing the role of the reader to bring out meaning” isn’t wrong—but, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. In the 1970s and 80s in the US, the dominant style of poetry limited itself to description and emotion. Language Poetry helped to break through those limits. It started to allow poets to engage critically with media, culture, and language itself. I don’t want to try to summarize the L.P. style. That would be impossible. We are all very different poets in the end. For instance, Lyn Hejinian is very different from Charles Bernstein. But we were all part of one big conversation.

Name one of your favorite Language poets or a poem you wish to have written?

There are certainly works by language poets that I admire very much. One would be Ketjak by Ron Silliman. But I don’t wish I had written it. To write that, I would need to be Ron—and then I wouldn’t have written the poems I did.

In ‘’And’’, that has been your first poem translated into Italian you’ve written:
“I would not confuse
the bogus
with the spurious.”
What did you mean by bogus and spurious? What is the distinction?

To start with, I’d like to give you a little bit of context. I was asked by a publication called The Writer’s Thesaurus to write the entry for a word of my choice. I decided to take a creative approach. I chose the word spurious because I like the sound of it. I provided a prose paragraph and then this poem. In the prose I refused to look up the actual etymology of spurious. Instead I made up a fake one. I said it came from a mating of “fury” and “luxury.” Really bogus and spurious are synonyms—but one imagines them being said by different people. “Bogus” is down to earthy and common while “spurious” would only be said by an educated person; you might even associate it with someone pompous. It is used mostly in the context of discussing misattributed quotations in texts.
Now for the poem. The poem adopts the voice of the kind of person you might expect to say “spurious,” that of a pedant, let’s say, or, to be more generous, an expert. But what this “expert” says is absurd from the start. I don’t think “tense,” “tenuous,” and “tender” come from the same Latin root, though they do all start with “ten.” One meaning of “tender” (a less common one) is a medium of exchange, “legal tender.” And, while there is no way that a flower or a moth could be any sort of coin, the poem seems to imply that anything could be made to substitute for anything else.  I’d say this poem is about not only dubious assertions, but dubious or at least unknown origins. In the second section, it’s perfectly reasonable to “confuse” or mix up the spurious and the bogus (though the speaker says he wouldn’t) since they mean pretty much the same thing. But, based purely on the sound of the words and on their usual context, I decided that the bogus was a “sore thumb.” (That’s old slang for someone who is resentful or can’t take a joke). And I made the word “spurious” into a boundless source of food and entertainment—“fish and circuses” which, I hope, will ring some bells in the reader’s mind. In the New Testament, Jesus is able to feed a large hungry crowd with an endless supply of loaves and fishes while the Caesar who built the Coliseum supposedly said that what the masses need to keep them content is “bread and circuses.” I mashed the two together. Needless to say, either of those quotations may, in fact, be spurious.

4) Tradition

What poets do you turn to?

Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams were my first loves. I also very much like the French poet Francis Ponge. Among more recent poets and writers, I often turn to my friend Ron Silliman. Our work looks totally different, but I admire the quality of his attention and observation. I’m inspired by the wildness of Fanny Howe’s work. She is perhaps not as well known as her sister Susan. I like them both.  Among younger American poets, I think Monica Youn, Lisa Robertson, and Joyelle Mcsweeney are inspiring. I am also impressed with the English poet Alice Oswald.

Name a US poet who is a genius. If I can guess right, I think you’d say Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson was definitely a genius. Not only was her thinking wide-ranging and daring,  but her language use, the way she put words together, was almost as original as Shakespeare’s.

Do you like Walt Whitman too? Would you say something about him?

People usually contrast Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but one could just as easily compare them. They both broke with Christian orthodoxy at a time when that was shocking, and they both broke with traditional iambic pentameter verse. Walt Whitman, of course, invented so-called “free verse”(or non-metrical poetry) in English. Dickinson wrote in irregular meter. Sometimes she used rhyme, sometimes she used off or slant rhyme, once in a while she did without rhyme entirely. Her verse forms were too irregular for her to be published widely in her lifetime. So both were non-conformists. A man could get away with public non-conformity in the 19th century;  a woman could not, so Dickinson lived a famously private life. Whitman didn’t quite dare to come out as gay, but he came pretty close to it in his poetry. I have always enjoyed the free-floating, omni-eroticism of his work, the “buzzed whispers, silk thread, crotch and vine.” He can make leaves and shadows sound sexy. Whitman proclaimed his own self-love—modesty be damned. That’s a kind of “yawp,” I guess.   I think of a “yawp” as unstructured and primal. Whitman’s poetry isn’t really unstructured, though it may have seemed so to the readers of his day. It has its own music, its own prosody. For example, he often uses groups of sentences or clauses with parallel syntactic structure, sometimes beginning with the same word. Allen Ginsburg later picked up on this  chant-like form and carried Whitman’s “yawp” forward. 

What’s wrong with US poetry these days? 

I think the obsession with social media isn’t good for poetry for the same reason it isn’t good for political life. It encourages what we now call Twitter mobs. People who say anything unpopular can be instantly thronged by online attackers. This has happened in the US poetry world (though not to me) and it tends to lead to writing that all sounds alike.  I don’t suppose this problem is unique to US poetry though. It’s ironic that I’m complaining about the influence of social media while we conduct this interview online. Computers have enabled us to quickly know and contact each other around the world, which is wonderful, but they’ve brought problems as well.
Then, of course, there is (still) the fact that we (US poets) don’t read enough poetry in     translation. As everyone knows, we tend to be self-absorbed. 

5) “Domestic”

Do you like your ‘’visiting/calling CARD’’ including your commitment to the interior and the domestic?

I know someone linked my writing with the domestic years ago. I don’t even remember who. I think that is not only wrong, but it perpetuates a stereotype about women writers. My work deals with everything I come in contact with, whatever that may be. The poem I discussed above, “And,” deals, however perversely, with etymology, nature, religion, and history. It pretends to find sources where, perhaps, there are none to be found. There is nothing of “the domestic” in it.

6) Assertion and Doubt 

I loved your phrase: “I think my poetry involves an equal counterweight of assertion and doubt”.  Do you remember whom you said to it or where you wrote it down? 

Yes, this was first written in an essay called “Cheshire Poetics,” published in an anthology called Women Poets in the 21st Century.  I’m glad you brought this up because the poem I discussed at such length, “And,” is a perfect example. The style is all assertion, but it is meant to provoke doubt.

Do you know the answers of all those questions in your poems? You are brilliant in that sort of mulling a question, had you realized?

You ask if I know the answers to the questions I raise in my poems. No. If I knew the answers I really wouldn’t write the poem. I wouldn’t be interested. Sometimes I come closer to an answer by writing, sometimes not. It’s the exploration of the territory that interests me.

The poem “And”, mentioned several times in the interview, has been published on Inkroci together with some others:

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Emilia Mirazchiyska
Emilia Mirazchiyska (1972) lives and works in her hometown Sofia, Bulgaria. She is the editor in-chef of Scalino publishing house which has in its catalogue two anthologies, compiled and edited by her: “Materinità possibili “(Italian edition – October 2011, Bulgarian edition – April 2011, coeditor Rayna Castoldi) and an anthology of short stories “Saluti a Dickens”, 2012. The latter has an English version too – “Greetings to Dickens” (15 Christmas Stories) with authors of eight nationalities: David Albahari (Kossovo, Canada), Iana Boukova (Bulgaria, Grееce), Soledad Cordero (Spain), Denitsa Dilova (Bulgaria), Sara Ferraglia (Italy), Ivan P. Hall (U.S.A.), Noémi Kiss (Hungary), Lyubov Kroneva (Bulgaria), Stoyan Nenov (Bulgaria), Dimitris Nolas (Greece), Gloriana Orlando (Italy), Alessandra Porcu (Italy), Milen Ruskov (Bulgaria), Zsuzsa Takács (Hungary) and Reynol Perez Vazquez (Mexico). She translates poetry from Bulgarian into Italian and from Italian into Bulgarian. Her professional aspirations in translating poetry broaden every month and scope other languages as well.