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.