blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1


Levis Remembered
David Baker
Matt Donovan
Tomaž Šalamun
Carol Houck Smith
Charles Wright

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A Conversation with David Baker
recorded November 28, 2007

David Baker: I am the poetry editor of the Kenyon Review. I’m so busy I don't have a lot of interior time. We get tens of thousands of poems. One way that it has shaped me is that I have less time to write poetry than I’d like. I have less time to prepare for my classes, take care of my daughter—do all the things that you like to do.

But it's the Kenyon Review, and it seems like a once in a lifetime chance to work on this fantastic magazine that was started in 1939. That's old for a literary magazine. I've worked on other magazines. This one?  It’s a real honor to do this, this being reading virtually everybody's poems. Everybody sends their poems.

I know the mistakes that people make in their poems. I know the clichés that we don't even recognize as clichés. Not just, “I walked out into the woods and I had an epiphany,” not just at the end of the poem, “and suddenly the sun was setting and I saw God,” but the more embedded and hard to see clichés. I recognize the moves that people make in poems. Period moves that we do when we write poems. Whether that is post-structural splayed text or a very tight sestina or whatever, I see the kind of mechanism of the popular imagination at work. And I know not to do that.

Mostly what I know is what not to do. I still do it. But I feel bad. I try not to repeat the common errors. This is just a way of saying, I think I see the clichés more vividly than other people because I see so many poems, and the enemy of poetry is the cliché, as we know it.

I think I have a little bit more sense of adventure, of wanting to be distinct. But the thing I look for in poems, I’ve learned to apply that to my own poems. What is it, when I’m sitting down and I read a whole pile of poems, which are the ones that assert themselves? And then I think, those particular features that assert themselves are the things that appeal to my imagination, and that I ought to do in my own poems. That is, a really distinct, original stance in the world. That is, some authority over the material. Not bossy authority, but a real sense of drama. Drama can be action, it can be speculation, it can be meditation. I don’t just mean, you know, “somebody runnin’ through the fields with a football” drama, and an Uzi, I mean something seriously at stake in the poem. Peril, risk is happening, and I try to do that more in my poems. Those are the things that, among the things that assert themselves as I read, that I look for. So I think more and more about doing those things in my own poems.

Gregory Donovan: David, a few years back, I taught a class that I titled “Lyric Versus Narrative Poetry,” to try and draw students in, and see if I could get them involved in a polemical discussion. But I think that the truth of it is that even as I went into that, I knew that that polemic was a lie.

DB: Right, good. It is.

GD: And, that so many people use that term “lyric” in so many different ways, that it’s become a kind of ragged political flag, that is just waved by so many different camps and so many different poets to prove different agendas, and I wondered if you would talk a little bit about why that term and that concept has repeatedly drawn you. And you’re clearly struggling for something in that welter of activity as well.

DB: I think the dichotomy suggested by those two terms is a false one, too. And I argue with people like Ellen Voigt. Ellen Voigt defends those two poles as significant—not just significant, but fundamental in poetry. If we were talking two thousand years ago, twenty-five hundred years ago, that kind of makes sense. When, you know, there is this kind of very clear generic distinction between a narrative poem, which is essentially the epic and the dramatic poem, which is essentially the play, and everything else, the lyric poem, that makes sense. But it’s very hard for me now to find those kind of useful parts of a continuum.

Because, well, I think there’s hardly anybody doing narrative poetry now. I regard narrative poetry as a long poem, with a long timeline or chronology embedded in it, and a fairly linear narrative, story to be told. “Once upon a time, this happened, this happened, this happened.” Really, the epic and the ballad are narrative forms. Everything else is a lyric, to me. It’s very hard for me to identify any lyric poem that doesn’t have a narrative construction. Grammar is narrative. The position of a predicate next to a subject is a narrative relationship. Here’s this thing doing that thing. Time passes. Syntax, even more than the sort of relationship of subject to predicate, syntax, all the sort of additional constructions of a sentence—the clauses, the phrases—are narrative. In that, time is passing. And as time passes, whether it’s going forward or backward or, you know, looping around, the world is changing. That’s a narrative to me. It may be a very suppressed or clipped or tiny narrative. But that seems a narrative to me. And I find that interesting. I’ve written about this a little bit.

Ezra Pound’s little poem “In a Station of a Metro,” which doesn’t even have a verb—the verb is the thing that drives a sentence. What is it? “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; peddles on a wet black bough.” And along with the title, “In a Station of a Metro,” we know a story. We know, in fact, the who, what, when, where, and why of that scene. We know who they are: they’re commuters. They’re in Paris, that’s the metro. We know the season, is a “wet black bough.” We can not just infer, but clearly decide on those narrative features. That’s—there’s a little story there. We supply quite a bit of it, but that seems like a story. Even though Pound said, you know, this is a pure, lyric instant. Uh-uh. And I’m interested in writing lyric poems—lyrical poems. Poems that sing somehow. And making that song driven by drama, or story, or action, or event. Whether that, again, is somebody performing something in the world, or somebody thinking. Cogitation is narrative. So that’s how I kind of disagree with that polarity. You know, and people say, “well this is mainly a lyric poem, this is mainly a narrative poem.” No. It has to be lyrical to be a good poem, first of all, or else it’s just bad writing. And on the continuum then of the lyric, a poem may have a very prolonged and sustained narrative procedure, or a very suppressed or clipped or complicated or fragmented narrative procedure, but it’s got some kind of narrative procedure. The question isn’t, “is that poem narrative or not,” but what’s the nature of that narrative? That asks you to go into the poem and look at its construction and its syntax and its style, and the nature or the feature of its dramatic velocity. That’s the interesting question to me. And Ellen, for instance, among a lot of other people I really respect, just doesn’t agree with that at all. Which is fine.

GD: Well, I actually caught her saying, one time, in one sentence, that all lyric poems are rooted in the narrative.

DB: I mean she’s a great example. She’s a beautiful lyric poet. She’s among the best. And all of her poems are also narrative. Clearly so. I mean, in kind of an old fashion way. I mean, we’re not talking about Susan Howe or Linda Ginny in here. Those are tropes on the page that look like real people, acting in something that looks like the real world in a real way. Those kind of old fashion values are clearly narrative in her poems.

GD: You’ve carried on with defining and examining a lot of aspects of lyric poetry, contemporary American lyric poetry. And one of them that you’ve taken up is the idea of a social responsibility and a social interaction of the poet who is writing the lyric poem, which traditionally has always been seen as very self-absorbed, maybe even self-obsessed. And yet you’ve talked about how that self-obsession/self-absorption takes place within a context and what the pressures of that are.

DB: Yeah, I mean, I think the value of the lyric poem right now, one of its values, is the assertion of the validity of something like a self. I think that in itself is a worthy purpose. My nickel answer is that there are so many forces that are arguing against the value of a self: economic forces and political forces, and, you know, the forces that erase us in so many ways, that the lyric poem in . . . its kind of purity. That singular spoken or sung or thought voice. Living in the world is a form of resistance to some of those other forces that would erase us or ignore us or remove us. And I think that’s one of the popularities of poetry right now. Poetry gets popular when times are bad. And they are bad now. And look at all of the people in schools studying poetry and writing poetry. Tons of people. People going to readings, to slams, people blogging poetry. Why? There’s some peril to our selves and the insistence for poetry in some ways, an insistence for treasuring our selves and each other’s identities and selves and voices. That’s one answer. The other answer is that as interior as a poem may be, Stevens or Ashbury or somebody even more kind of opaque, as interior as a poem may be, that material is language. Language is itself a collective, cultural, political invention. We agree and continue to negotiate the meaning of words—the value of syntactical forms, the shape of an imagination. The work we do as singular poets is voting for continuing that conversation with everybody, or with the people who value poetry. That’s a public function. I think it’s even a political function. We continue to insist on the beauty of this form of communication though it seems solipsistic sometimes, self-contained. My critical-theorist friends disdain the lyric poem because it isn’t part of the cultural discussion to them. Bull. We insist that it is. I mean, it’s the case, too, that this characteristic that we identify as the self—the personality, the psyche, the ego, whatever—is always in flux, is changing, is not a solid, static thing. I mean, we’ve known that for a long time. Although again, some of my critical-theorist buddies say, “well how can you presume to write a lyric poem from the stance of the lyric eye?” When, well, psychologists have been telling us for a long time, that’s really just a pastiche of things. We know that. It’s not, though, that the lyric eye or that the ego doesn’t exist. Right?

GD: Do you see you’re talking now about the peril from without, the looking at poems with a jaundiced eye that’s going on. But do you see any perils coming from within? The practice that some poets are undertaking, or the way they’re undertaking poetry that seems to undermine elements that you value in poetry.

DB: No. As just an individual artist who writes from a singular stance, or the stance of a self, or an I, one of the perils is just finding out that the I that you carry around is feeble, small-hearted, meager, mean, dumb, stupid, lonely—all those things. None of those is an especially pretty discovery in one’s own poems, sometimes. We are not the hero of our poems, we’re the villain. That’s an interesting position to write from. That’s a peril.

There are people doing all kinds of poetry. There are tones, or stances that I find unbecoming or uninteresting or downright despicable now. But I don’t want to censor, or edit, or say people shouldn’t be doing that. I’d rather just complain, or criticize, because that’s part of the dialogue rather than an erasure. I’ve been just sick to death of the tone in a lot of contemporary poetry in the last five years, though. The tone of the smart-ass—I’m getting tired of that. The smart-aleck, I’ve read a lot of books. The sneer. Do you know what I mean by “the sneer?” As much as I like his poems, I think the effect that Dean Young and Tony Hoagland, for instance, have had is kind of ugly. I’m getting tired of reading those mean poems. And I understand where they come from. They are again, an articulation of a self in a brutal, mean, nasty time of history. And these are—not these guys but the thing I’m talking about—this sort of ugly voice. I understand its origin. Beauty isn’t necessarily a tulip and a puppy dog—it’s a rough, ugly, bleeding thing too. But there’s a kind of muscular nastiness that I just am tired of. The pose of presenting a speaker as the head-banger, as the completely ironic antihero is a way of valorizing the self that I don’t particularly enjoy. I can be nastier or meaner than you. I just don’t care about it.

GD: I’ve always thought that irony, which is quite popular now, is one of the more dangerous modes to take up. Not only because of what it does, the corruption that it works on your own soul, but also because in terms of how the reader takes in irony. Which is not to say I don’t love irony when it’s done well. Of course I love it, laugh at it, laugh at myself and laugh at our whole culture when I find it used appropriately. But so often irony doesn’t—it only appeals to the intellectual response, and doesn’t appeal to a very strong emotion. It’s a really weak emotional response.

DB: Irony’s easy. Or certain kinds of irony are easy. Language is ironic. The fact that it exists—that a word is fluid, flexible—is an ironic thing. There are two kinds of irony. I want to talk about that for a second because you’re talking about irony as sarcasm—tone of voice. The sneer again. The literary teeny-bopper who says, you know, “as if.” Or my daughter who, when I get up in the morning and she says, “Oh, you look good.” That kind of sarcastic voice, I get sick of. That’s tonal irony. The irony I’m very, very interested in and think about consciously in every poem I write is situational irony or dramatic irony. Harold Bloom calls it, “the clash of incommensurate forces.” I have this powerful thing and this powerful thing, and they will not coexist peacefully in a single space. That’s what I want to write a poem about. This Oedipus at the crossroads, collision, friction, damage. That’s irony. This big thing and this big thing and this big thing put together.

And the project of any individual poem is a very clear—what I hope becomes as I work on it—clear purpose or aspiration or hope that has as much to do with style or music as it does with any kind of narrative thing happening. And when I write about other people’s poems, again, I try not to think about an agenda as much as the task ahead of me—the body of work, the poems. And to try to expose for myself the critical mechanism that I’m applying. Because it is just mine, and it is just one person’s, but I try to talk about what that is.

I like a lot of things, lots of kind of poems. I’m complaining about the snide. I find Dean Young just a wonderful poet. And Hoagland. I like a lot of his poems. A lot. It’s more the sort of aftereffect of their work as it’s been picked up by lots and lots of people who can’t do what they’re doing. I think I have preferences almost in spite of myself, rather than in advance or on purpose. There are things that just move me more because of who I am and my background and my language and the way my mind has developed, or not developed. There are things that I prefer, and there’re things that I don’t prefer.

GD: One quality of your work, one specific quality of your work that I’ve observed, which is an urge toward clarity. And that while you certainly will fog things up and complicate things and make things difficult for yourself, your poems seem to at least enact the yearning toward a kind of clarity. And I think that operates at the level of the image as well as conceptual.

DB: It does. And I’ve been trying to mitigate against that in my poems. I’ve been resisting certain kinds of closure in poems. For instance, in things I’ve been working on in the last few years. That’s a real fundamental distinction and importance, it seems to me. It seems to me that there are a lot of post-post-structural poets, whose work, it’s hard for me to see other than “they’ve just discovered chaos.” Or, the point of this poem is to say “gee, it’s really hard to communicate. Language is insufficient for the communication of a real emotion.” Duh. I know. We’ve always known that. I kind of think that’s the position at which poems begin, not end. Yes, things are hard. Yes, we’re never clear. Yes, we don’t understand our own hearts, let alone anybody else’s. Yes, we may not even have a self. Yes, things are chaotic. Uh-huh, gibberish is everywhere. Then what? Otherwise, we can’t even live together if we can’t negotiate a language to live together. So I do, in my poems, push toward clarity or tropes that we can agree on, or share. Negotiate or argue about, sure. But share. Otherwise, we’re just sitting in corners babbling. That’s nothing.

GD: Well, I think there’s another aspect of your work that’s reflected in the very title of Midwest Eclogue. Or maybe several things that are, I know, impulses and urges to defend or even carve out a space. And to understand your own place in a long-standing—you could call it tradition but that may be a loaded word—a long-standing cultural project, in which you clearly see yourself as part of that string.

DB: That’s the kind of thing, again, that one can know about oneself only after the fact. It’s not intentional and not a designed . . . it’s not a destination in the work. But after a while, you look back at your own work, and think, well I seem to have said this over and over, I must think that. One of those is, I think, a kind of residential desire. To make a place to reside in the world, in the green world, in a poem, or in a type of poetry, as a place to construct a domestic or a residential site. Yeah, I think that.

The title of that book also suggests regional fidelities, and I guess I have those. I don’t think they’re necessary for a poet at all, I just have them. I’m moved by a certain kind of landscape because it’s where I’ve lived. And a certain shape and smell of landscape connects so quickly to me, to language and memory. But the other word there is the other, I guess, tradition that I like to connect to—that sort of belated, belated, belated pastoral tradition.

The eclogue, I find, is kind of a really great form. It’s the snarky or the fussy, or it’s the pastoral form where there’s more than one voice. You’ve got to have at least two shepherds in an eclogue, and they’re competing. Typically, in fact, they end up arguing, fighting: “I can sing better than you can.” “Show me.” And I like that trope of voices, even as a way to talk about a self. That we are composed of so many voices, memories—the voices of our elders, the voices of our culture, and from that great big soup of things, we pull words and those words take shape in certain syntactical and narrative constructions, that become us.

I don’t think about any of this when I write, do you? I’d just sit at my desk twiddling my thumbs, if I thought this. I just try to not be embarrassing. I try to write a sentence, that someone will go, “oh, yeah, that’s good,” or not just “that’s good,” “that’s authentic.” Or, “I recognize that. I’m glad you said that. That makes me dance.” It’s a thing that I discovered in my own compositional process, years ago. A desire not to position the speaker as the hero—that seems like an obvious thing. But I realize that so much of the poetry that I love is contrary to that. Even Whitman, in some way, is contrary. He is so skeptical of his own magnanimous gestures of heroic behavior.

And many of the poems that I don’t like, or in fact disdain, do position the voice of those poems as heroic. Even if that voice is, you know, highly sarcastic or ironic.

When I began to think to myself, of course I am, as the one capable of doing harm—of breaking hearts, of being cruel, meager, mean. Or simply of being in the world and not knowing what to do. Or not doing something. As the culpable one. Maybe not. I don’t mean the villain as the one who robbed the bank, the one who hurts. That’s an interesting position from which to write. Not to apologize, but to identify. To embrace, to confess, to . . . that’s a trope that is a very connective trope, to readers. You realize when you write that you’re the one who does harm. There’s some injury in the act of making language. You’re performing a kind of violence in the act of making language, and imposing that language on an audience or an auditor or a reader. You’re asking to shake up or change or alter somebody’s psyche or universe or position in the world by asserting this new language.

The Yeats quote is a lovely one: “We make out of our quarrel with others, rhetoric, and out of our quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Wrong. And he’s taken that from Kant, for whom all language is divisible into two categories: rhetoric and poetry. Rhetoric is essentially to him social discourse, and poetry is private discourse. Beautiful when he talks that way. But of course, that’s wrong. You can’t forgive or remove poetry from any other rhetorical circumstance. Poetry is rhetorical. Right? It is social interaction. It is discourse. It’s made of language. And language’s function, language’s purpose, is to communicate. Language is a tool that we use to live together and survive. One of its beautiful manifestations is the lyric poem. When it becomes therapy. That’s when I know I’ve gone too far. Writing poetry won’t fix you. It won’t make you better. It won’t improve you. It won’t heal your wounds. It won’t do that. And when the poem is beginning to perform that sort of analytical, therapeutic whatever, you’ve gone the wrong way. It is rather a continuing, very redundant function of reminding ourselves and each other of that fundamental condition of flaw, imperfection, culpability. Over and over and over, we have to act out that drama just to survive and go on another day in the world. And to find, continue to invest into things in the world, something like value or beauty or the things that we do, at least for that instance, or that instant, or that day, actually believe.  

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