Dec 31, 2011

Directionality, Dialogue, Doubling:

Taking The Wide Road with Lyn and Carla

I am an American traveler sitting on a southern European beach, with a copy of The Wide Road, by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian, at my side.

I am an American traveler on this cool winter beach, and I am using my tourist camera to digitally record three children playing on the rock and sand against a radiant late-day sea light.

Two are small children, a boy and a girl. The other – an older girl – could be a big sister, or perhaps a young mother, very slight. Together the children's moving figuration appears like the theatre des ombres that once delighted French audiences of the 18th-century stage.

The mobile yet shadowy images continuously reconstitute a collective image in ensemble-like embodied poses. These children, who I do not know, come to my lens as slender curves cutting the backdrop array of the luminous ocean surface.

As their silhouettes entice and also distort my vision, partializing my view of the sea and making it this "backdrop" formation, the figures continuously come together then break apart. I am contemplating the distilled traveler's vista that is one of the subjects of The Wide Road (published by Belladonna in 2011). Like these human bodies who act at once both as a differential / individual and a collective / multiple spatial representation, The Wide Road recreates – through its poetic trajectory following along in three sections – a looking-glass phenomena of the alienated and yet fascinated tourist gaze. As a traveler / reader, the poetry reflects my own doubled look, in and out of the "time" that is a particularly female subject's performance journey.

North by Northwest

Just as the road on which one expects to go east branches, one arm to the north east and the other to the southeast, so a traveler's appetite and the means of satisfying it frequently fail to coincide.

-- The Wide Road, "Preface"

I am imagining this "female" sojourner as having arms and legs sprawling hither and yon, like an octopus under the sea crest that surely lays before my ocean gaze. We may think that as sojourners these days engaged in air and other mechanized transport that we might move "directly" and simply forward, from Point A to B, through 3D space. But if the 3rd Dimension is, as some theoretical physicists are suggesting, a holographic mirror of a mirror of a representation, directionality is a curious event – without origins or telos or end. And since "outside" is but a non-original mirror of "inside," the legs and arms crawl along a basin whose sprawled and continuously unraveling viewpoint rests "within" – limiting and also entertaining our own perspectival warp.

So are my figures of children's shadowy presences in these tourist photographs digital amalgamations of my internal witness? I may not know which way to turn, which pathway to take, off this winter beach to further contemplate such phenomenal problems. But I know I am in France with this poetry book under my arm. I take it like one would take a friend -- to a French café. Perhaps I order a tilleul infusion with miel. Or, better yet, an aged Calvados may be required for the density of my thought here as Reader. It is still a luminous afternoon. Yet the shades of light that quickly begin to play at a distance to the beach, where the sun will strike the horizon at 5 o'clock sharp and dissipate into cold-wet air, lead me to consider the way in which The Wide Road is more, perhaps, than a postmodern take-off on all literary tales of travel. I am reading the "Preface" now and enjoying it heartily. It features the travel-subject's wandering and the language of picaresque displacement. The Wide Road "takes off" – as in taking its cue but also its trailhead source --- from the particular travelogue called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, poet Matsuo Basho's seventeenth-century account of a walking tour to the remote mountain regions of northern Japan – to the land of Oku, the "Within." Yet one need not read Basho – or Marco Polo or even Jack Kerouac – to appreciate the new turns it makes in the relationship between scenery and subjectivity and sex. I read sipping this lovely apple brandy, and I move down an increasingly widening – fertilely opening and provocatively sweeping – path. If The Wide Road tracks like a ginger young hiker, it also performatively plays -- like the children before my camera's lens – with the literary prerogatives of the travelogue that inevitably inform the sojourner's / reader's identity, "within."

By often imitating the representation we call "space, " this first section in The Wide Road manages to both be "the journey described" and a humorous rendition of how language acts as a series of stagings and performances. Judith Butler and others have told us that identity and its gender is a performance cut from the tools that are words and their cultural points of view. In these prose-poem lines, the traveler's journey is never dissociated from the pen that writes it: "we wrote those lines with inconsolable dispatch, after leaving the apartment in which we had spent our first night. WELCOME was the official instruction hanging from its door." This subject's journey is not only performatively textual but sexual. As she / we strangely plod and float in the poetry's directionless and mobile stance, textual sexuality is ignited:

"Spreading our legs ... we invited the stranger to enter."

Like the sea that forms the background to my children's images in front of and within my photographic lens, language floats -- on its own watery rhythms. On this linguistic canvas we look at "midday meadows, ears buzzing with corn." Yet it is not in this text that we will discover "the temple of certainty." Instead, brief and picaresque encounters with sexual partners and other sexed apertures and body-like hybrid parts haunt our wanderings and mutterings. We climb over the next lyric hill or horizon to discover:

"Our fisherman is standing just behind and above us on the slope. He embraces us from behind, passing his fingers over our breasts; then he reaches between our legs: he has us in the palm of his hand."

Such luscious and sexy soft-porn is blatantly heterosexual. And it is a female driven desire. Women rarely have opportunities to record their fascination with and fantasies about men. If the subject here is how women view men as sexual objects, words are the actual sexual partner. Words are placing us "'in the presence of things to come to terms with' as we float back to a yet more familiar sky." Ritualized or mainstream-cultural heterosexuality is displaced by this particular "female" vantage point, creating hardened tools and probes out of words, weirdly twisted into visual shapes within "a space in the proximity of a retrievable object."

It is the logos of proximity that "floats" – uncannily drifts -- through this text. Such nearness and yet distance is the slight edge of difference that is the woman traveler's, the étrangère's, relation to "the look."

Female sexuality is tenuously described, in slippery lines like: "Masturbation is equivalent to a pamphlet." (Is it? We must think about that.) And an explicitly female-sexual commentary alludes to the double experience women have in heterosexual love matches, in men's failure often towards them as women but also in men's seductive appeal: "Our theory is that women barely tolerate men. We meditate on this notion while we pull off the anchorman's socks and shoes and suck his toes." Sex in this text provides not only a directionality, a way up and out – through a miasma of visually incomplete images and fragmented phrases -- but "an incitement, urging us to elapse ... It is the passage of time that allows us to become moral..." (43).

In a further comment on "the passage of time," we read the lyric line, "whether durant or pendant." Here are two French words scarcely different in semantic meaning if not usage vying for the image of a sex-filled "while," without time. There perhaps is no difference and every difference at once in the usage, context, and sound of each of these words, "durant" to "pendant." The time of this language that "floats" is hot with desire. It is a language of desire that is always splitting into alternative multiples, many forking paths.

The poetics of these "splittings" are displacements, which leave the reader everywhere and nowhere as she moves along. We move north by northwest – which is nowhere in particular. But every traveler – every writer / reader – knows that jumping off that point and dissolving into erotic love (jumping from Mount Rushmore like Cary Grant?) can be dangerous. I am reflecting upon these uneasy conclusions as my French waiter asks me if I want another Calvados. ("Mais,, merci.")

Epistolary Pas de Deux

"It seems to me that this may be the right moment to start a correspondence."

-- The Wide Road, middle part

The second or mid-section of The Wide Road steps – or jumps – into an epistolary correspondence, without titles and labeled only by days of the month (without year). This correspondence allegedly is on-going between two fictive voices whose letters are signed "Carla" and "Lyn," somewhat suspiciously. Corinna Copp's interview in The Poetry Project Newsletter with Hejinian and Harryman Winter 2011 had already alerted me that the writing process of The Wide Road had been diffuse and multi-layered, involving nearly two decades of letter exchanges finally ending in a cabin retreat on the California seacoast that scarcely resolved that tension. Such a process created not only the polymorphous "Prologue" but now the series of letter exchanges that discuss topics like sexual violence, "dark sex," and contemporary Haitian political violence. What might these themes have to do with the themes of representational "direction," performance identity, and the pleasures of female desire we've just encountered, I wonder? (I an glad I had decided not to imbibe a second brandy.)

As "Lyn" evocatively reminds us in one of her letters, "sidestepping" the "question" might lead to an actual generative starting position. All points of departure must be established, no matter how fictive. We are in the language of double-speak, and double-step, as we roam from subjects of human violence to animal instincts, and to a discussion about how to read – get this! – a children's photograph!

I am stunned as I read "Carla's" brilliant discussion of a representation of "a photograph of an 18th century drawing of two children ... standing so close together that it is difficult to discern if they are joined in any other part of the body." I touch my photographic equipment laying beside me along my seat in the café -- to make sure the French thieves haven't yet gotten it, they always hit on travelers like myself – and then to scroll through my own digital images of children's shadowy poses just snapped. I am wondering what allure photographs of children have for the voyeuristic artist / traveler-perceiver. And is this infatuation we all seem to have a coincidence? Like my photographs, I note in "Carla's" description of the portrait representation "one child offer[ing] the viewer a profile and the other a semi-frontal view." Angles of representation and the directional views of the spectator provided here seem to exchange and re- perform what otherwise might only be a static image:

"Though one of the children does not seem to be looking up, her head, along with her outstretched arms, gestures upward. The other child in an oppositional pose, gestures toward the ground."

It is depending on how the viewing subject looks at this combination of gestures, gazes and postures that inform how she might interpret meaning in the 18th century portrait – one that is a photograph of a representation, a double. The image of the two children, an "allegory of mimesis," reveals the "distinction, individuality, and separateness" at the heart of every artistic figure, poetic or photographic or otherwise, according to "Carla." A double to the double-form of the dual correspondence in this section of The Wide Road, the 18th-century children's portrait initiates "Carla's" analysis of mimetic duplicity, within the conceptual context of "contingency" and "discontinuity" that forms the epistolary conversation. Are not all human languages and intellectual debates -- like the one here between two female "friends" – a pictorial nightmare? How does the language seemingly attempt to account for resolvable ideas but, in the process, only bind and tighten more that thin-wire trajectory called "the death drive"? As Freud would have it, the child's "fort-da play" is a projection as well as a forestalling of (and prefiguring of) the subject's (self-) negation. "Lyn" remarks: "We are born with a death wish. Or we invent one." "Carla" responds: "within the field of play, the drive is shattered and figured ... transformed into objects with plastic qualities."

Double Exposure

Our longing for doubles and death may create the irresolute binding that is intensified within the female-friendship dialogue. In the final part of the book, a double exposure endures less a binding than a "bifurcating" process. It is less a "twinning" effect, like that of the photographs of the 18th-century children, than a further destabilization within the "female" erotic text. The page literally splits into two visual columns, titled "Foray" and "Array." These terms for order and yet adventure -- often used in distinctively military contexts -- are the product of the dialogical sparing and mental "octopus"-like roadmap that the epistolary correspondence in the middle of the book has set up. (A foray is "to make inroads" but also to "make a raid" as in pillage for the spoils of war; an "array" is "a regular and imposing arrangement" that also can refer to a "battle array" or also a display, say, an "array of jewels," or the "array of images" before me sitting in my café post or in this sexy text.)

The two columns of poetic commentary running vertically stand as their own "independent" or separate representation(s): of poetry language, and "desire and perception" (Foray). But while their separateness has split the text into separate elements, they are conjoined and continguous. This book is about making doubles of itself -- then, blending them.

Has this "wide road" wound itself out? What is its subject?

I go back to the traveloque genre that The Wide Road reconsiders and challenges. In its multiplicity of both loci and subjectivities, female "identity" like the traveler's singular narrative account becomes an impossibility. Non-exclusive, inviting the audience "within," as co-wander, co-meaning-making and love-maker, The Wide Road dismantles any romantic individualism associated with the travel literature convention and that sets its solopsistic author-adventurer apart. Time for me to go back to the United States. -- LH

Sep 11, 2011

Archiving the Post-Human Future

– Dedicated to Akilah Oliver

An archive meditates on memory, religion, time, war, technology. It is a technology of inscription. An inscription of our psychic processes, our utopias, our seed syllables, our cosmic batteries, and hope of future. Archive is a practice. And through Archive we show humanity – or what ever it is – the consciousness of the future—the post human future –the intelligent slime mold poets of the future – we were not just slaughtering one another.
-- From Ann Waldman's pamphlet, Feminafesto*

Akilah, this is my Archive for you.

When my son and the love of my life died a year and one month ago, it was Akilah Oliver – a mother who had also lost her only child, a son – who knew best what to say, how to stroke my mother's broken wings with "love language." It was this time last year, right after my son's passing, that I got to know Akilah. And I found that she was not only a wonderful experimental poet, working with performance, song, sound, language and its politic-poetic, but that Akilah was a kind and nurturing grieving mother and friend.

We talked and drank wine at the Elephant & Castle in the West Village after she finished up classes at the New School. At the end of our three-hour sitting – and spilling -- together, Akilah said to me: You are doing all the right things.

One of the "things" I "did" for my New York artist son after his death at 32 is build a building: an art Archive dedicated to his multi-media music, film-making, and graphic-novel cartoon work.

But Akilah would know that this material building is but an Earth "atmosphere." While art is material, it is also composed of the air we breathe in and breathe out. I think Akilah believed not only in spirits but in muses, as I do. It is this in-spiriting "process" of the Archive that is the art of life / the life of art. It generates the form of forms of language. It is this "air" combined with a linguistic materiality that is poetry's performance and highly mobile mode of witnessing.

I guess I am now an "idealist" (in the Platonic sense). While this may be an unpopular term in radical writing practices, it is nevertheless a concept that many working poets I know – including Akilah – seem to share. "I, Afterlife," to borrow from Kristin Prevallet's wonderful book title written after a father's death, have experienced / created out of "air" what Akilah once wrote me was her consolation: her son's "essence." The Archive I built – and that I am writing now – is perhaps an atmospheric "essence" inseparable from the planks of cedar wood, or the language, from which it is built. My Archive is "love language" built from its own air-grounding.

I will speak a moment about "grounding" in my "ideal" sense. I, as perhaps Akilah did, perceive grounding as the earthly continuity of what one of Akilah's friends and mentors, Ann Waldman, in her recently published manifesto cited above, calls "the intelligent slime mold poets of the future." The grounding continuity is art's witness. It is grounded – always metaphorically of course -- in a slimy but effervescent, non-destructible (but always splitting and disintegrating) motion-filled space / environment.

For Akilah Oliver's writings and sonoric ranges, there is no difference between sound and ground, air/space and(/or) solid matter. As poetry "beings" ("slime mold poets?"), we slither and move – perhaps as the poet Rae Armantrout uses that concept in her own poetry manifesto (an Artist's Statement published in the Claudia Rankine-Juliana Spahr anthology, Women Poets of the 21st Century). Or, perhaps the more highbrow term is that of Hank Lazer's, "the swerve" (from his essay on Armantrout in the same book). But ... let me write for a moment about slitherings or swervings, and movement – in the context of my garden in Upstate New York.

In this garden sits the building housing, "grounding," my own son's art Archive. This summer, the same garden has been literally writhing -- slithering – with large earth worms. The worms are so prolific – talk about dividing and destructing! -- that the soil in my garden is nearly non-existent. Or, rather, my garden exists -- but as the slime-upchuck of these fat cylindrical creatures.

As poets -- Waldman's language might suggest -- we are endowed with capacities not unlike my garden ground's slithering worms – language being our slime vehicle. Our "soil" base is sound and grammar and the foibles of punctuation. Akilah's work shows best what it is to mime and regurgitate and transform and thus use the grounding of language in its actually pretty slimy syllabic sounds. (I mean this as a compliment to language and poets.) Akilah writes of this motion, through the wormy treadings -- the tracks of language -- on a page, in a poem clearly addressed (more or less) to her 20 year old son, Oluchi, a young man who "crossed over" several years ago at age 20. The poem is called "Crossover":

When you left,
I mean when you had to go,
-- I intend an old saying,
when He called you home
(literally, as if jesus beckoned or something)
I was so unprepared for the earth's
Grace as it disintegrated beneath me

: what is being found –
your shape ephemeral & shy

What can I "say" about such lines, in their slither "about" (about "slither?")? Note the phrase, for example, which in conventional poetry might be "ephemeral sky," "ephemeral & shy"; it becomes a leaving body's essence-shape. The "about" of this poem is Oluchi's new circumstance – this is what I call my son's as well as my own new circumstance, that of the life/death cycle opened up, the continuously regurgitated boundary of that faulty line folding into a steadier consciousness. Akilah and I both valued a view that suggest we "exist" as forms of what is commonly called reincarnation. (Buddhism, I believe, for Akilah, as well as for myself, is one or many spiritual sources of that view.)

The "about" in Akilah's stunning poem, "Crossover" works because the poem's lines "disintegrate[d]" – because the poem is uttered, sounded out and moved about, through hypothetical and purposely short-changing grammars and misdirecting punctuation marks. It, the "poem," becomes not only "about" a "leaving" ("left"), for a body that "had to go" – but a "leaving" in of itself, performed, in the air, on the material page.

"Crossover" is not a religious poem; it is not in the slightest traditional sense. This poem is speaking not "about" institutionalized "death," one perhaps recalled in the "old saying." Instead, it is a much more refined – for lack of better word, spiritualized -- version of the life/death cycle "about." It is "about" a more authentic kind of "Grace" than what the institutions, perhaps, can communicate.

It is the ironic "Grace" in and "about" "love language," which is also our worm-body-cage. (Fredric Jameson wrote a book called The Prison House of Language. Is language a prison-like body-cage?)


As Akilah gave me her understanding over that table at the Elephant & Castle barely a year ago, which now stands as a moment only several months before her own "crossover" in sudden unexpected death, I give her mine here, typing, writing, knowing what she is here writing "about" -- through me, through you. And to you, my dear mother-friend, this is my Archive – to you. This exchange, a continuity.

It is only those of us who have passed through the particular suffering that is the "crossover" of a child, who know the carved "doors of perception," swinging widely to both sides (borrowing that phrase from Aldous Huxley, who wrote about the expansion of states of consciousness that are near-death experiences through hallucinogens; he did so a generation before Timothy Leary and Ram Dass.)

Akilah produced a magnificent poetry book following her son's death, A Toast in the House of Friends (Coffee House Press, 2009), where "Crossover" is published. There are so many wonderful poems in this collection -- I can only but focus on this one for the purposes of my writing here. I am fascinated, as I reread this poem, when she goes on to detail the love of a mother for her child, in "love language." My reaction to my son's death has been to write "love language," too, to use poetic language, in particular, as a healing.

This healing, loving act, performed in and by Akilah's poem, is not one of sentimentalized "motherhood" -- or sentimentalized rhetoric about motherhood, or of "love language" itself. Again, the poem "Crossover" etches into the grounding of the page a profound if always conditional state -- language, as form, and deepest instigation of loss. In "Crossover," Akilah writes:

a love language, that is:
a language gasping for consonants
shape the unspoken
as in: you are my first love, as in:
I wept you
when will I see you again – see,
like that,
a love language

My computer insists on trying to put forward the beginning of these lines in capital letters. I have to delete these letters. I have to return to them their lower-case function, that of the "ordinary" lower-case of this writer's prophetic. Many do not see prophet "bards" in the skin of a Black woman, a gay woman, a single mother heroically – against the odds – raising our amazing children to manhood (or womanhood). We tend not see our great poets in mothers, period.

The bias against us is enormous, the future of our Archive easily, potentially, forgotten. One of the topics Akilah and I perused in our discussion is the way in which, as mothers losing a child, we are relegated to the shadows of social interactions. We become the symbolic nadir of human consciousness. Even our "best friends" and family members wish to forget the poison that we represent. We talked about this new frame of loneliness.

Such is the beautiful experience of grief in American culture. Reading yesterday, on the eve of today's 9-11, in the New York Times, the news story of all the New Yorkers who are trying this weekend to "leave town" -- for the sole reason of "forgetting" ("tired of sadness and pain," sort of thing, not as political critique or questioning; see these weary New Yorkers quoted in yesterday's newspaper).

We do not "see, / like that" – in Anglo-American culture -- the importance of the most contrite diction being our most foundational participle of grief . And we do not "see..." that grief is a space, what Akilah wrote me, is a "holding."

Akilah in her own "Crossover" – too soon -- left.

Did she leave? ... her words – here.

For those of you wishing to honor her life, poetry, and passing, consider attending tomorrow night's inaugural poetry event, "In Aporia: The Annual Akilah Oliver Memorial Reading." It was recently established by Akilah's devoted students at the New School, and co-sponsored by Belladonna Books. The reading features many fine readers, most of whom knew or studied with Akilah Oliver:

In Aporia: The Annual Akilah Oliver Memorial Reading
September 12, 2011

Lang Café, Eugene Lang College
65 W 11th St. New York, NY

For more details, the event web page is:

You can also find out more about Akilah Oliver and her poetry-sound-performance work by going to her page on the Belladonna website at:

For more about Akilah's graffiti-artist son, Oluchi McDonald (1982-2003), please see Akilah's "Poetic Trance" dedicated to Oluchi, on her author page for The Tolerance Project at:

For more about my multi-media artist son, Vickers B. Gringo (Paul Daniel Lyon), you can visit his website at:

You can also see Vickers's musical performances and music videos on YouTube, including "Big Rig" (his last) with his innovative rock band, The Deuce and a Quarter, at:
(He's the lead guitarist in the black hat with the falsetto voice.)

And you can see his animation work and acting (playing the Underground Man having an unusual date) in Ronni Thomas's 2010 short film, Radio Girl at:

Anyone wishing to visit the Vickers B. Gringo Archive in Woodstock, New York, can write me:

-- LH
* Feminafesto is published by Chax Press of Tucson, AZ (2011). I recently ordered one of its 160 hand-made copies. It is beautiful!

PHOTO ABOVE: Akilah Oliver

Mar 14, 2011

Conversation over Cognac with Rae Armantrout

I met with San Diego-based poet Rae Armantrout in February at the Brown Hotel lobby-bar in Louisville, KY, on the last evening of the annual Louisville Conference in Literature and Culture after 1900, where she had just given a keynote poetry reading. After we placed an order for two glasses of Remy Martin, I told Armantrout that my graduate students that past week at the City College of New York had initiated a vigorous and controversial discussion about “Soft Money,” a poem in her new collection, Money Shot (Wesleyan 2010). At my request, Armantrout talked about what inspired her to write a poem that I called “illusive”:

RA: I was driving along listening to the radio, and I heard an old Duran Duran song called, “Rio Dancer.” I might have misheard the lyrics but they went something like this: “Her name is Rio. She don’t need to understand. Oh Rio Rio dancer ... “; and then something about “the Rio Grande.”

Some of the imagery in “Soft Money” came from that song, “Rio Dancer.” The attitude behind the song seemed objectionable, of course. But I started to think about why that is erotic, how people eroticize – “the other.” This woman – at least it’s a woman in the song, in the poem the pronouns are ambiguous -- is apparently seen as attractive either because she has no understanding or because she has no need for understanding.

So the poem is about sexual power and sexual dynamics, in part, I suppose. But the word “border,” borrowed from the song, suggests other issues, too. And then, because the person is objectified, I started riffing on the word “thing,” and I got to “the thing in itself” and “the thing for you,” which comes from Kant – “the thing in itself” being the true essence of a thing, that we will never know because we can only know how we perceive it. And then I somehow thought of “Miss Thing,” which is, I think, gay slang for a narcissistic person. So there’s this associational work around the word “thing” in the poem. But, overall, I don’t think “Soft Money” is my most “illusive” or difficult poem. I think it has to do with this troubled relation between knowledge, power and erotic desire.

LH: Wow. I don’t think we got all that in our classroom attempts at interpretation. But we knew “Soft Money” was a good poem. And that’s something that’s so interesting about your work to me. Your poems – most of them – hit me as so viscerally real, so witty about the “reality” we live with. I experience them as profound, and yet I often don’t know why. Sometimes I study the poem for awhile, and I find these puns on words that make the lines so rich. They may, in fact, be puns punning on the concept of “meaning” itself. We are forced to ask: Meaning... does it “mean,” what is it to mean, or is “it” (the “meaning” of the poem) just content to be?

RA: Well, that’s Archibald MacLeish – “A poem should not mean but be.”

LH: So there is also allusion here in this “illusive” poem, “Soft Money.” We see pieces of Duran Duran, Kant, perhaps even MacLeish...

RA ... and gay slang.

LH Your poetry has all these various layers and dimensions. It also seems to concern itself with physics and science. I’ve recently been reading physics as well as metaphysics. Particularly, I am really interested in the theories of quantum physics....

RA: ...Me, too.

LH: I figured so, because so much of your work is about perception, and what makes “reality,” and the role of the perceiver in knowing the “real.” Quantum theory makes us ask what actually constitutes an atom, and the particles within the atom, and how we discern what the atom is. And, as I understand it, the perceiver may participate in whatever “version” of “reality” unfolds.

RA: And it may go beyond that. All this raises the issue of what created “reality” before there were humans to perceive. If it takes perception to crystallize “reality,” then who was the perceiver before we came along in evolution? Before we were here? I don’t think there is an answer to that philosophical, scientific debate.

LH: I am enchanted with the way you are using your love of science in your writing, as in your poem “Simple” (published in the volume Versed, Wesleyan 2009). At your reading here at the conference, you said this poem was dedicated to and in response to a dialogue with your son, who is a biologist. Many of your poems in general seem concerned with biological matter, or existence – and yet in a very playful manner. This poem “Simple” particularly is a study in ontology and existence. It is existential without the “seriousness,” or the formal “seriousness,” that one associates with existential questioning.

RA: I think that the things that are the funniest are actually the things that are dead serious. Even comedians aren’t talking about silly stuff. They are talking about those things that actually hurt them. Comedians are actually the most serious people who could be speaking to you.

LH: I’ve always been a lover of gallows humor myself. But here we’re talking about the way in which science has been one of the many threads running through your poetry ... hmmm ....I’m unhappy with that word “threads”...

RA: ... motifs....?

LH: Not quite ... “Threads” is all right, I suppose, to represent that woven aspect of textuality I’m trying to identify when I read one of your poems. Yet, in the case of your lines and “verses,” it’s almost as if there are these little “explosions.” There’s an explosion here, an explosion there, rather than interlaced “threads.” Almost like those particles produced by the explosions re-merge together, and do this dazzling dance of their own. I don’t see your poems creating a “fabric” through “threads”....

RA: ... No, the poems create space.

LH: Yes, the words themselves are spatialized (even on the page). How is this effect related to what you call the “Cheshire poetics” ... your Cheshire cat figure in your artist statement? In that essay, you talk about the “slither” that is related to the Cheshire cat. Written a few years ago, does that description still hold for the poetry you are writing now?

RA: Yes, I’m still very interested in the sort of -- how can I say this? – the simultaneous being there and not being there, the meaning and not-meaning, which I associate with the Cheshire cat. That is, partly at least, what I meant by “slither.” I’m almost obsessed with double meanings and – I can’t always achieve this – but double meanings that are optical illusions. You know that famous design in which if you look at it one way it’s an old woman and if you look at it another way it’s – what? – a vase, I guess. I like to produce that kind of hinge in which a word or a phrase can flip. And if it “flips,” the poem means something different.

I’m not saying I’m often able to achieve that. But that sort of thing fascinates me. And I guess I see that as this teasing spirit of the Cheshire cat. He’s pointing both ways. Before he disappears.

LH: Pointing ... at your reading, you talked about this human activity in the context of one of your poems. “Pointing” -- that’s such a beautiful way to discuss what it is to be human. That we human “animals” point – and that distinguishes us from other animals.

RA: That idea about pointing actually comes from some scientific studies that have suggested humans are the only animals that point. The scientists used to make bigger sounding claims like, humans are the only animals who use tools, for instance.

I like responding to scientific ideas, but I also like the supernatural. I get ideas about the supernatural from TV....

LH: ... I was going to ask if you actually watch TV.

RA: I do -- if something good is on! For example, I like the program, True Blood, about this little town in the South, in which the vampires have decided to come out of the closet, with all of the metaphors that process implies. They’ve existed all along, but they were hiding, and now there is a blood substitute they can drink so they don’t have to attack people if they don’t want to. (Turns out they still want to...)

LH: So how did this program True Blood inspire the poem?

RA: I’m talking about the poem “Working Models” in Money Shot, by the way. It begins with a take on True Blood, then goes into some material from animal studies like the one I mentioned before. In the TV show, it turns out the citizens of this little town are almost all one sort of monster or demon or another. But they have routine jobs, most of them. And the animals in the studies are always being forced or tricked into doing one task or another. In neurology speak, circuits in the brain that can accomplish tasks without consciousness being involved are called “demons.” The word “demon” becomes the hinge that connects the scientific and the supernatural in that poem.

LH: Your interest in a program like True Blood and your use of its motifs in your poem is reminding me of Leslie Scalapino’s use of the film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the 1970’s version with Donald Sutherland), which she wrote about in Dahlia's Iris. Those “body snatching” images become a kind of story about, or metaphor for, human existence through the parable of the extra-terrestrial and extra-sensory realms.

RA: Yes, I like movie, too. I guess if your body is operated by unconscious “demons” in your mind, it has been “snatched” in a sense.

LH: I didn’t know about that term, “demons.”

It seems that your poetry is mining all these different discourse “fields.” And you bring the relics of those discourses back into your own poetic language. It is purposely full of mixed diction. And you are kind of taking concepts and their linguistic terms out of one context and placing them in another. Or perhaps like a poetry vampire, you are taking them (the concepts / terms) over. For all artistic purposes, of course. And the language shape-shifts in the process.

But let’s talk about another one of your books, Up to Speed, and the thematic but also rhetorical concept there of “speed,” so well evoked, by the way, in the book’s cover image ....

RA: ... of the tracks and the boots. That’s by Eleanor Antin. You have to look hard to see the boots....

LH: Do you want to comment on this notion of “speed,” as a concept perhaps relating to poetry in the contemporary world? I recently slowed down, having had a death in the family. I’m finding that when one slows down, the world speeding around begins to look more and more insane. And we are all supposed to “speed” up, and up and up....

RA: ... I know. The world appears to be getting more and more insanely hectic. And you can get addicted to speed.

LH: Yes, we’re on our phones, we’re on the internet...

RA: ... and sitting at the computer we demand: what do you mean that it’s taking 10 seconds to load? We feel that this is outrageous! (Laughter.)

LH: Well, what does our sense of speed (or not) have to do with your poetry?

RA: There’s actually a movement called Slow Poetry. I don’t know much about it; I just saw it mentioned on Ron Silliman’s blog. But I’m not a very patient person. Even before the internet. And I really don’t like filler. I guess that’s why my poems come in these separate parts. I kind of like to drop in and see where I land. See if it is interesting. If it's not, I’ll go somewhere else. Of course, the title Up to Speed was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek. You can tell that by the cover photo. It’s a phrase you might hear in the business world. “Let’s get you up to speed on this.” The title poem involves, among other things, the riddle of the Sphinx (I sometimes think of the Sphinx as the speaker) and the speed of light.

LH: I would never have known that you are not patient. And your poems are not impatient poems – they are not phrases simply trying to escape quickly to the next thing. Although your poems are very condensed, they are disciplined. That takes patience!

RA: ... I never wrote in a different way. My first poems were very short. What’s different about my later poems is that I started combining more elements. But the condensed form was there from the time I was a kid. And I suppose compression, on the one hand, produces the impression of speed, but then, on the other hand, might make you have to stop and think for a moment. That’s what I enjoy about it.

And my husband thinks I’m impatient! I’m not saying that’s a good thing to be.

LH: Another topic ... we are currently entering Women’s History Month. Last year in March, I wrote a short blog essay in response to your friend Ron Silliman’s blog piece on that topic. Maybe because you recently had won the Pulitzer prize in poetry, and the National Book Award, as well, it was beginning to seem last year as if women had finally achieved top positions – at least in poetry.

But my blog response was a rumination on “Why I am Not Celebrating Women’s History Month.” My piece suggested that, even with all the strides made toward full equality and humanity for women, many wonderful female artists and writers are still viewed as secondary to men -- by critics, say, or, say, within the publishing industry. I’m now referencing the recent VIDA study, that revealed the lack of women authors in mainstream magazine articles by a statistical counting of the actual gendered numbers.

RA: Yes, I read the VIDA study. Those magazines -- they are all magazines edited by men. I read an interesting comment recently that most of the female literary critics are second generation feminists, that there aren’t that many – or enough -- poet-critics among the younger generation. Is that true?

LH: I don’t know. But what I’m wondering is if we have discouraged some young women entering writing and literary fields by suggesting, in general, that the 21st century is "a post-feminist era.” I see that assumption on-going in some of my classrooms. Many appear to believe it. Therefore, we may be giving out the message in American society that we’re beyond the gender drama and the gender wars, and the dilemma these can pose women aspiring to be artists as well as intellectuals. Perhaps many younger people do not feel they have permission any longer to question what might have become seemingly passe or unpopular issues.

RA: We all know these issues are still important. The feminist idea, for example, that one should not be judged by one’s appearance as a woman – that’s really been lost. There is this idea now (again) that we are all supposed to be “babes.”

LH: Yes, men can wear “dress-down” clothes to the office, they aren’t primarily judged by what they wear. But women are always looked at for what they wear, their wardrobe, their hairstyles, their makeup or lack of makeup. Inevitably we draw criticism based on the "look," the surface.

And sometimes we women are slow-starters, as a result. We may lack self-esteem, or internalize our sense of being secondary. I hear this point made by even older women today, that they internalize criticism that is delved out institutionally.

RA: It's true that women may be slower starters. But -- I’m going to say something positive about that. That women gain confidence slowly. And, as they do, women can have a great second act.

LH: Let’s bring this discussion back around to your poetry. You implied earlier that there is an implicit gender critique in your poem, “Soft Money.” And you once wrote about a feminist aesthetic in what I consider to be a foundation essay on women and the avant-garde, “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity.” But how is your feminist perspective still informing your poetry, in general, today -- perhaps as a reader might be moving through your most recent work, say, in Versed or Money Slot?

RA: .... Well, I suppose that, in general, a feminist perspective may be less apparent in my poetry now than in my earlier books. As I’ve said, my books are never all about one thing, but I think family and domestic life probably used to play a greater role in my poems when I was raising my son than they do now. Raising a child makes you very aware, if you weren’t already, of various norms, including gender norms, because parents are supposed to impart these norms to their children. I mean, at some point, when they’re around two or three, kids figure out, and you help them figure out, that they are either boys or girls and what that means. They have to learn that people come in those two flavors.

I probably think about such things less now, not because they aren’t interesting, but because I’m at a different stage of my life. I still see sexism around me, of course. For instance, when I was going through the body scanner at the San Diego airport to arrive at this conference, the TSA guy, who was no spring chicken himself, said, “Step up here young lady.” I wonder if he would say this to a 60ish man who approached the machine, “Step up here now young gentleman.” Somehow I don’t think so.

Will I put that in a poem? I don’t know. We’ll see. Of course, some of the things I was focusing on in my more recent books, such as illness or mortality, are gender neutral. Other things that interest me, such as economics and science, are male dominated, of course -- though I don’t know whether that awareness actually enters the poems.

This interview was taped on February 26, 2011. Laura Hinton is the primary writer of this blog.

PHOTO of Rae Armantrout and Laura Hinton by Aldon Lynn Nielson, who blogs at Thanks to Nielson for permission to reprint this photo, which he took at the annual Louisville Conference party hosted by Alan Golding and Lisa Shapiro.