Joshua Corey is the author of three books of poems—Fourier Series, Selah, and Severance Songs—and two chapbooks. He is an assistant professor at Lake Forest College, near Chicago, and runs a popular poetry blog, “Cahiers de Corey.” Recently, he has finished co-editing a poetry anthology, The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, and has just received the wonderful news that his manuscript, The Barons and Other Poems, will be published by Omnidawn in fall 2014.
Corey’s academic and creative work center on modern forms of utopian speculation, primarily the flowering of “avant-pastoral” poetic modes from late-modernism onward. His work on this absorbing substratum of environmental poetics draws extensively from both cultural materialist critique and from what he has called “visionary materialism” (think Heidegger and Robert Duncan). Modernist pastoral, as Corey acknowledges in his unpublished doctoral thesis (available for viewing here), is an intriguingly paradoxical rubric. Modernism would seem an unlikely handmaiden for pastoral, that most anti-modern of all traditions—and yet, through avant-garde techniques of collage, assemblage, and bricolage, Corey argues, modernist avant-pastoralists (or “ecoleurs”) like Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, and Ronald Johnson managed to “revive the negative and critical capacity of pastoral and transform it into a vehicle for utopian speculation.” Avant-pastoralism thus attempts a constructivist reimagining of post-industrial reality that brings fragments of the whole world into poetry and hinges on the recognition that “nature” forms just one of many such fragments. It is animated by what critic Timothy Morton has called the “ecological thought”: an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, from “nature” to the most synthetic productions of late capitalism. The point, above all, is to apply pressure to the linguistic mediacy of all encounters with the natural in literary texts, a condition which pastoral works have, historically, sometimes broadcast openly and other times worked desperately hard to conceal.
Corey and I began corresponding by email in the summer 2011 and continued the conversation intermittently for the better part of a year. Several weeks ago we wrapped up over the phone. Our discussion centered on his ongoing work on the pastoral, though it branched out to other topics as well, including his research project on Robert Duncan and its relation to The Barons; the place of narrative in contemporary experimental poetry; the composition of his novel; and the “bitter logic” of the language arts.
Stephen Ross: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. I thought I might start by asking you what are you working on these days
Joshua Corey: Well, I have just completed an article titled “Robert Duncan’s Visionary Ecology” (but perhaps it should be “literary” ecology), in which I explore how Duncan employs versions of pastoral over the course of his career to draw connections between his radically open poetics and ecology, from the radiance of The Opening of the Field through the growing pessimism of “Passages” to the necropastoral of his last poems. This article is going to appear in the journal Paideuma. I have also just completed work, with G.C. Waldrep, on the anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, which will be published by Ahsahta in about a month. So that’s how my ongoing preoccupation with things pastoral is playing out.
As far as poetry goes, I haven’t written many poems lately but what I have done has coalesced into a new manuscript, The Barons and Other Poems, in which my recent fascination with Duncan and with what you might broadly call a prophetic mode of poetry are very evident. When it appears in print it will, I think, both sum up and break with the pattern of my poetic production over the past decade.
SR: If we could go into a little more depth here, I was wondering how the rubric of “visionary” or “literary” ecology might relate to the bigger picture of 20th/21st-century poetry? Do you take Duncan’s “visionary ecology” to be an example for later practitioners, who might not otherwise have come to him? I wonder, too, if you’re drawing on Timothy Morton’s work at all in your most recent writing? While he’s not strictly a poetry critic (though I seem to remember reading somewhere that he directed a thesis on Ashbery and ecology), his “ecological thought” seems to complement Angus Fletcher’s notion of the “environment-poem”, another concept I know you find useful.
JC: Timothy Morton has been a major influence, to be sure: not only have I embraced his notion of “ecology without nature” as a descriptor of what postmodern pastoral is or could be (given the long history of accusations regarding the unnaturalness of pastoral), but he’s also put me on to such thinkers as Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux, founders of a new movement in philosophy called speculative realism and/or object-oriented ontology, which have in turn reconnected me with my old fascination with Heidegger, the problematic origin of my interest in ecological thinking. Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern has also been useful for helping me to see that pastoral as it’s been practiced since the Romantics has been a primary aesthetic means of maintaining the boundary between human and nonhuman, culture and science, upon which the illusion of modernity depends; I use his concepts of purification and translation to read how Duncan’s pastoral moves from the ambiguous separation of the realms of nature/unnature toward a pastoral of translation and network inscription, which manifests on the most intimate and terrifying level in the late poems of his last illness.
To go back to the beginning of your question, I have in the past couple of years become dissatisfied with what I would call the broadly Jamesonian or Frankfurt-influenced model for thinking about contemporary poetry—essentially congruent with the project of Language poetry and the post-Language writing of people like my namesake Joshua Clover). Duncan has been the key for me in that his project is very similar to that of the Language poets, in terms of his sense of language as socially imbricated network, but is at the same time animated by his commitments to Romanticism and spiritualism. Put another way, Language writing is useful to ecology in its assertion of the sociality and ideology of any reference to “nature”; but taken to its logical Derrida-derived conclusion (there is nothing outside the text) reduces nature and the nonhuman to nonexistence, to fantasy, and so succumbs to idealism. Duncan, on the other hand, while neoplatonically asserting that the word is the Word, a divine and independent actor to which poets must practice obedience, seems somehow strangely more fundamentally to be a realist in the philosophical sense of the term, because for him everything is equally mythic (the self, the sea, toxic waste, his cat) and therefore equally real. If you take idealism far enough it turns into a form of realism, I suppose. So Duncan’s poems are environment-poems in Fletcher’s sense but they are radically inclusive environments, in which one might well encounter Hermes or Persephone as well as encounter the war in Vietnam or a given word’s etymology.
Put yet another way, Duncan sutures ecology to ontology in a way I find valuable, even if he’s not enough interested in physical phenomena to fully satisfy anyone’s description of an ecopoet. He offers a possible path out of poetry as language game toward poetry as a philosophically activated means of engaging with a complex and actual world in which words, global warming, Scarlett Johansson, the Blue Whistling-thrush, and the 2012 presidential election all have exactly the same ontological status, the same reality as things (in the Heideggerian sense) or as hybrid-objects (Serres and Latour), neither fully social-immanent nor fully natural-transcendent.
SR: To return briefly to an earlier comment: could you elaborate on what you meant when you called The Barons a summing up and a bid farewell? I’ve been reading Severance Songs with great interest, particularly by the cross-light of other “avant-formalists” (if you permit me the coinage) like, say, Karen Volkman and D.A. Powell—these two in particular having turned to the sonnet. I wonder if you sense affinities between your work and theirs, or others’? And if you think avant-formalism is a meaningful concept?
JC: “Avant-formalism,” that’s not terrible, I get it right away, especially with reference to the poets you mention, and I suppose myself: a re-engagement with traditional forms toward broadly “avant” or innovative ends? I just read a review of Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation in the new Colorado Review which seems to suggest something similar about that book: on the page it looks quite traditional with its tercets and villanelles, but as the reviewer suggests, the traditional form makes it possible for the poet to focus his innovation in/on the content. For myself, I’m increasingly uneager to make any claims of innovation: I am a poet of my time, and if I have any means of resisting the period style at its least interesting (see: Elissa Gabbert’s now infamous article on contemporary poetry “moves” in The Monkey and the Wrench, referenced here) it comes from my sense of poetic history as it manifests on the formal level, via my longtime immersion in the English tradition (viz. Shakespeare, Herbert, Marvell, Donne, Milton, Keats, to name some faves). I’m interested in older poetic forms in an almost Benjaminian sense, as artifacts that have outlived their world, which when resurrected Frankenstein-style bring certain utopian resonances as well as modes of critique to bear.
The Barons. This newer work, a selection of which recently appeared in the Spoon River Poetry Review, takes a step away from my instinctive formalism and tendency to (over)load every rift with ore and moves in a more vatic direction, while at the same time in subject matter it’s very contemporary (in hindsight many of the poems seem attuned to the spirit of the times as embodied in Occupy Wall Street, though the most recent of them is at least eighteen months old; the title poem could easily be retitled “The One Percent”). I shouldn’t call it a break with too much insistence; my sense is that changes in one’s practice that seem radical or renunicatory to oneself are usually perceived as continuous by actual readers. But I do think the newer poems are in a sense more public than the ones in Severance Songs, more engaged with the notion of a public voice and the possibility of the poet as bard, who speaks to if not for larger social formations and moments. The manuscript in its current form also has a retrospective dimension, incorporating the text of my chapbook Compostition Marble, which like Severance Songs grapples with the post-9/11 moment but is engaged with the spirit of the city itself, moving back and forth from New York to Ithaca and refusing the sense of exile that hangs over the sonnets. I also go back and forth between including or rejecting the text of another chapbook, Hope & Anchor, a group of prose poems that were probably my initiation into the more narrative direction my writing is taking now. Not just referring to my novel here, but to a few of the other new-ish poems of The Barons that have an anecdotal flavor.
SR: Your mention of OWS makes me wonder about your take on politics and contemporary (North American) poetry, specifically its capacity to grapple with or absorb political subject matter. I wonder if you could speak a bit more about the question of “public” poetry in the present moment.
JC: Politics, or the complex zone of political intention, is fair game for poetry in terms of content, I feel. Much of the poetry that concerns me most closely is political not in any oblique quasi-structuralist Language-poetry sense but in terms of its subject matter. I’m very engaged with post-pastoral writing and ecopoetics, which is an intrinsically political force field of topics, vectors, and fantasies. More and more, what interests me about poems is the intensity of the desire they manifest: I think the reason I gravitate toward pastoral rather than ecopoetics proper is because pastoral manifests a zone in which contradictory intensities work themselves out: it’s a ground for fantasy, it’s Robert Duncan’s meadow of first permission. So I’m less interested than I once was in a Jamesonian poetry of cognitive mapping of the spatiality of late capitalism and more interested in a poetic politics akin to that practiced by Duncan, who preached obedience to what’s happening in the poem. The poem can and should include everything, including everything political, but it doesn’t need to orient toward critique or action—and how foolish if it did, there’s a million better ways to perform critique or take political action than by writing a poem. Still, our politics is spun out of what we can imagine, so poems that imagine new modes of being—with others and with the others in the self—may have, indirectly, a good deal of political work to do.
Perhaps writing fiction has oriented me in a new way toward narrative, but the politically engaged poets I have the most respect for at the moment are telling stories, often obliquely autobiographical, which negotiate politics/the social/the person in the context of vision/culture/the intimate self. I’m thinking of Alice Notley and Lisa Robertson; I’m thinking of Mark McMorris and Nathaniel Mackey. Poets who are attuned to the outside, like Jack Spicer. There’s a dialectic of immanence and transcendence that narrative, I have a sense, can be sharply attuned to.
SR: I find this very interesting as there seems to be a general consensus in contemporary “experimental” circles (or at least “conceptualist” ones) that “Narrative poetry is dead”. You seem to be arguing that there is still potential in narrative, and I find myself wanting to agree.
How might one make the case for narrative? Do you see yourself negotiating this narrative dialectic between immanence and transcendence in your own work?
JC: The question of narrative as a dialectic between immanence and transcendence provides a useful frame: I would suspect that the general condemnation of narrative that has reigned for so long in American innovative poetry communities stems from a larger suspicion of transcendence: that is, of any structure or ideology that acts from outside the poem to in some way determine its content. This goes back to the poetics of immanence that Charles Altieri located in the “Objectivist” poets, who have collectively morphed into the gold standard for a particular aesthetic (and ascetic) strain that dominates much of the discourse around post-Language poetry. A poem’s argument or narrative, to use those terms loosely, is supposed to emerge from its constellation of diverse elements and discourses (insert Creeley quote via Charles Olson here). Story is suspicious in part, I think, because it taps too directly into the pleasure center, but there can be a real ethics at work too, a Duncanesque commitment to what is happening in the poem even if that means that narrative coherence is thwarted. For the Language poets and those coming in their wake that thwarting becomes the point, throwing the reader back upon her own resources.
On the other hand, what if one’s commitment to what is happening means that a narrative does take shape? My most recent experience with this comes not in poetry at all, but in what turned into the novel I have recently completed. I did not set out to write a novel, only prose: I wanted to meditate, to think poetically, about certain aspects of my biography, and I wanted to try doing it in sentences instead of lines. When to my surprise characters and scenes and even a plot began to emerge, I decided to embrace the prose’s emerging “novelness.” Would I have found this as easy to do if I had been writing verse?
I don’t know the answer for sure, but there’s always the towering example of Alice Notley to settle this question. All of her books since The Descent of Alette have been heavily narrative, which doesn’t stop them from being poetry that forces us to recognize it as innovative if we stick to what’s at the center of that word: novum, the new. I had the opportunity recently to ask Alice why she wrote her narratives in poetry rather than prose, and her answer was: “Because poetry is better!” Of course it is. Because poetry’s unfolding, I think, works from the inside out: from breaks and turns, from the insides of the histories of words, from inside the poet’s subjectivity (the more visionary that subjectivity the more likely it is to produce narrative), from inside narrativity itself (for all poetic narrative is meta-narrative, it always thinks back on itself, Ouroboros-like). It works from immanence, and if it can be read transcendentally—that is, “for the story”—that’s not it’s fault.
SR: In the course of our discussion, and from reading your blog, I’ve noticed that you have an impressively firm grip on the theoretical implications of your creative practice. It seems important to you to have critical statements to buttress, enrich, or somehow animate your poetry and also your prose. I find it immensely rewarding to come to your poetry having read these statements about your aims, which isn’t always the case with poets who write about their practice.
I was wondering if you could comment on the difference between how you envision your work and how it actually comes out. I have in mind the “virtual-real” distinction that Allen Grossman makes—what he calls poetry’s “bitter logic,” the fact that no matter what you imagine you want to do, it’s not going to come out exactly that way. It strikes me that Duncan might be attractive to you in particular because he’s not so focused on achieving an ideal form or crafted perfection, so much as engaging in a process, or “adventure,” with the reader. You’ve spoken about him preaching “obedience to what’s happening in the poem.” How do you think about this question in your own work?
JC: I think with Duncan it is very often a virtual poetry and this is why I had so much trouble with it for years, even though I was also drawn to it. Not to say he doesn’t do realized poems, that there aren’t the fundamental pleasures of sound and so forth in many of his poems, but they do seem to often gesture toward a thought-world or a poetic virtuality that you participate in as a reader but you don’t necessarily have it. It’s funny, I was just reading of all things Michael Chabon in the NYRB on Finnegans Wake and I was prepared for him to be dismissive. But of course he wasn’t, and he talks very beautifully about this gap, which is not simply for poets, between the book in your mind and the fallen object in words that you inevitably produce. And then my mind leaps to how this is the central preoccupation of Ben Lerner’s novel, which I wrote a little review of [in Jacket2], Leaving the Atocha Station, in which the narrator claims that he only loves poems when they’re quoted in prose, and this sense of the real beauty of poetry being in the gaps between what is actually achieved and what you want it to achieve. And of course I was writing about this too, the poetics of failure, creating this deliberate gap between expectation and achievement and hoping that the reader’s desire can fill that gap in some way. So, I’ve been struggling with this bitter logic for a while, for a long time. Formerly, I was drawn to simply trying to fill the gap, to fill it with my plentitude. My model was very much Joyce, not Beckett—I think of them as the emblematic polarities, and Joyce fills every rift with ore, as opposed to Beckett’s emptying everything out and seeing how he can make nothingness move…
SR: Right, punching a hole in language to see what oozes through…
JC: Yeah, exactly. And I guess this is very typical of the way my mind works. After moving through frantic embracing of one pole or the other I come to see that what’s really interesting is the dialectic and the turnover and the agon between the poles. And so I feel like in my own writing it would be silly of me to try to repress too much my own irrepressibility, my own linguistic facility or pleasure or whatever you want to call it. And at the same time I do have this notion that through this kind of antic language I can lead myself or the reader up to a precipice and silence will then appear to be reckoned with in some fashion. And that’s where everything changes.
SR: Yes, this reminds me of the last lines of “The Barons”:
Let silence bring to presence. Silence. Silence.
There is still a little shade
Trees are noisy
Waiting to be killed
Have it your way silence
I don’t care silence. . .
I was really impressed by this poem and had a few questions from my reading of it. It’s funny you mentioned Ben Lerner because his most recent work is moving toward a kind of long Whitmanesque or Ginsbergian line that overflows or spills over the break, and in the course of doing so edges toward a kind of prosaic flatness because it’s pushing past the formal container that a poem would normally fill. And you’ve spoken about moving with these latest poems toward, let’s say, a more vatic, open style. It seems as if you’re rifting the line, or ventilating it (to appropriate Ronald Johnson’s term). And you’ve got bits and pieces of Whitman in it, and a Spicerian seriality, along with gestures to Ashbery, Ginsberg, and others.
Anyway, reading the poem it struck me that the “Romantic hangover” we get from people like Ginsberg and Duncan—an elevated, even pretentious sonority, if you like—is turning out to be a strangely appropriate and useful mode of addressing the contemporary cultural situation. And so I wonder if you have this sense too, and whether you’d link Duncan and Ginsberg in a larger move toward the visionary or vatic mode that you’ve explored in your recent poetry?
JC: I would, and I think that I’m letting myself be increasingly preoccupied with the 60s moment. I mean, with Ginsberg in some ways we’re talking about the 50s, but never mind. Certainly Duncan’s great moment is the 60s, though very significantly and importantly he continues to write astonishing work into the 80s. So the pair of the 60s and 80s is very important to me because, well, the 60s is the 60s and the 80s is when I was a teenager and coming awake to poetry in what certainly in the States was a very anti-poetic seeming time. And also at that time certainly having no awareness of or access to the Language poetry scene, which of course was really picking up then, especially in San Francisco at least. One gets tired of the baby boomers romanticizing themselves, and the way the 60s gets used is not always attractive, but I do feel like there was a moment there, the last moment where poets were able to write about the very very particular and specific of experience, and then turn on a dime and talk about a word that’s almost embarrassing now: cosmos. Which is of course a Whitmanian word…
SR: And an Olsonian one too…
JC: Yeah, the 60s is when the wave breaks. It was building in the immediate postwar era with Olson, and of course Ginsberg is part of that too, in his own wing of things. There’s a Canadian critic named Miriam Nichols who wrote a book about the Black Mountain Poets, Radical Affections, and basically she’s talking about them as poets who write about cosmos—that’s where I picked up on this idea that the 60s the last moment when people were talking about the cosmos. So I keep going back to these guys—they’re all guys except for Levertov a little bit—you know, Olson, Spicer, and Blaser now who wasn’t on my radar but I’m reading him seriously now. I liked his poems but now I’m on to his essays, and he’s a very good thinker about poetry, forming self-consciously a bridge between Black Mountain poetics and French theory. The thing about that whole Black Mountain thing that I have some resistance to is that as with Whitman when you start talking about cosmos, you start to get a lot of hot air, a lot of self-seriousness. And I have some resistance to that.
Sometimes I need to throw all those guys aside and just read James Schuyler—I have a theory that he’s also a secret participant in this writing, but coming at it from a much more intimate way. So that’s what I want to explore a little more. Schuyler’s one of those poets I’ve loved too much to say anything about—they’re so attractive, or provide such solace that I haven’t been able to say much critically. Stevens used to be that way for me too. And that’s another thing just personally for me that Stevens represented for a long time what poetry was, he was a poet that activated me, I remember when I read him when I was 14 and was completely blown away.
SR: And you come back to him in the first lines of the opening poem of Severance Songs: “To be party to it I come invited but unrecognized./ The house was quiet and the earth was unmade.” Echoing, of course, “The house was quiet and the world was calm.”
JC: Yes, he’s there, he’s all over that. But I don’t know, Severance Songs might be the last book where I’m able to use Stevens in such a direct way. I feel like I’m more critical of Stevens than I was before, or at least more critical of my Stevens, because I do think of him as one attempt to navigate that rift because in his poems you’re constantly stumbling from plenitude to vacancy and back again, which is part of what I adore about him. But his borrowed Transcendentalism just doesn’t fit me.
SR: I wonder if that’s because of his hesitancy or constant provisionality. I’m comparing him with Duncan, for instance, who just constantly goes for it, as opposed to Stevens who will only conditionally “go for it”. He’ll say, “Let’s imagine an angel flying down from heaven…” Whereas in Duncan, THERE’S AN ANGEL FLYING DOWN FROM HEAVEN.
JC: Yes, that’s nicely put. I’m fascinated and slightly appalled by Duncan’s readiness to mythify everything and have myth be the condition of reality, and not the other way around. I think I said this somewhere already, but his cat’s mythic, Lyndon Johnson’s mythic, and Jess is mythic, and where they live is mythic. He elevates everything to the condition of reality, rather than assuming that reality is something that’s just kind of out there, that reality’s grounded in the mundane. He believes the complete opposite of that. And sometimes this leads to gassiness, or “floaty vagaries” as he puts it. But it’s also exhilarating and very much what I don’t see in 90% of the poetic cultural production I’m looking at right now.
SR: You’re right. I wonder if you’re familiar with Michael Snediker’s book Queer Optimism?
JC: I’m not!
SR: Well, he reads Crane, Dickinson, Spicer, and Bishop in an attempt to recover the terms “queer” and “optimism.” It strikes me that Duncan might be operating in some kind of “queer optimistic” mode too. In a letter of April 1975 to the Australian poet Robert Adamson, for instance, he writes of Ashbery: “Ashbery is truly wonderful—and wonder should verge everywhere upon ‘I wonder’—Most important he is never vague. . . .He talks about ‘beautiful lines’; so there is some aesthetic pose. And a transformation of high camp (as if starting there gave the permission needed for the transcendent speech).” I really like his use of “permission” here, which is of course one of his key words. This comment seems expressive of a kind of “queer optimism” that can be found in his own work too. I wonder what you make of this?
JC: Yes, I’m looking at the book on Amazon, it looks great. I’m reading the description here: “Michael Snediker offers a much-needed counterpoint to queer theoretical discourse, which has long privileged melancholy, self-shattering, incoherence, shame, and the death drive.” And of course queer theoretical discourse in that sense can just be called “postmodernism”, or maybe it’s more “modernism” in a sense.
SR: Ironized waning, or draining, of affect.
JC: Yes, whereas Duncan is hardly ever melancholy. Even in the last poems, there’s rage and beauty there but he’s not posing and sighing. That is one of those things that seems strange and untimely about Duncan and also so invigorating and also another thing that fascinates about him—and this goes back to the essay “The Homosexual in Society”—is his insistence that his experience gives him as much access to the universal as anyone else’s experience, and so he’s willing to think in terms of universals. The trouble with Duncan is that as soon as he starts talking about universals he then starts talking about mythic archetypes and eternal return and this is where I feel that Blaser offers a useful counterweight because his emphasis is very much on particular and individual experience and difference and he criticizes Duncan for being too quick to say Lyndon Johnson is just a reincarnation of some Death god. Or on an even more personal basis there’s what he did to Denise Levertov. When I read their letters I am always on Duncan’s side intellectually but I also just think sometimes, “Man, have a heart!” When he turns Levertov into Kali, I think that’s the real dark side and danger of his mythification system, if “system” is the right word.
SR: So, going back to object-oriented ontology, which you mentioned earlier, in which myth exists as an object on the same plane as Scarlet Johansson and the cat walking in my backyard right now and the Oort Cloud, what does that do to myth? Does it flatten it out, diminish it? I’ve always thought it’s true that they all do exist in some sense on the same plane, yet they don’t really have the same value, do they?
JC: The problem is that we begin by talking about this fundamental leveling that that thinking offers which is really in some ways the philosophical rationalization of something visual artists were doing a long time ago with collage. Poetic discourse tends to stop there, but that’s just setting up the chessboard, that’s not the whole game. Once you’ve done that leveling, then you’re invited to THINK! And you’ve got all these entities that are on the same level ontologically, they all exist, but are they in the same proximity to each other, or to me? Or are they in motion historically or spatially? I do think that the kind of missing step is—and I don’t even know how to teach or say this in a way that has the proper emphasis—that the reader or writer or individual has to decide on the importance of these things, as opposed to receiving them from some authority, some doxology. And I guess this is where Badiou and the Event come in: which of these objects do you feel addressed by? Which do you choose to address? How much of the configuration around you are you going to accept? I think this is also where there’s a kind of invitation to a certain maturity here that is opposed to selecting the objects that are the most attractive or will make you look good or decisive or whatever. You also have to say, “This very ugly thing is also caught up in it, or this ugly aspect of myself is caught up in it.” Duncan, at least in his virtual poems if not his actual ones, seems to open the path toward this kind of very inclusive poem which at the same time it’s not just willy-nilly, here’s a bunch of stuff, it’s like, “I had this moment, I had this adventure, and come on it with me for the duration of this poem, and you will arrive at a new place as I did.”
SR: Here, I was hoping I could switch gears and ask you a bit about the anthology you just finished, The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. First of all, congratulations on completing it.
JC: Thank you.
SR: What I wanted to ask is how the finished product relates to your original conception. I saw the table of contents and was surprised at how large and wide-ranging it was, and wondered if these dimensions had always been part of the plan.
JC: I was also surprised! My original conception was going to be a slender and incisive anthology, partly because I find big books like that really hard to read. But what happened was G.C. and I kept discovering great stuff. And I began to conceptualize this quadrant in my Cartesian way—I’m always mapping things on quadrants. I just wanted them to be full, and it turned into a very different kind of book.
SR: Which in its own way reflects the postmodern pastoral you’re interested in, in that it’s bringing in elements from all over the place. But having edited the book and done work on postmodern or avant-pastoral, and it being a pet project, how did the process of editing that volume, reading all that poetry, organizing and synthesizing it as you did, affect your thinking about pastoral or the potential for that kind of writing? Was the editorial process transformative in any ways?
JC: Well, it was a long process, and G.C. and I both sort of came to the table and he would say “I want to include Set X of poets” and I’d say, “Great, I agree with most of that list, here is Set Y.” And we kept discovering other sets, and then there was the open call part of it and we received submissions which we didn’t expect. What was interesting was that I felt that the category of pastoral or post-pastoral or postmodern pastoral or avant-pastoral—I’ve yet to come up with a satisfactory term—it began to seem very capacious and yet at the same time there’s an interesting effect that occurs if you take a poem and declare it to be pastoral. Something happens to the poem and the way we read the poem. To back away from the anthology itself and talk about some predecessors, I’m thinking of NY School types. James Schuyler’s poems: of course they’re pastoral, because they’re about flowers or Fairfield Porter’s garden. But a poem like Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” is also pastoral…
SR: “It sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country…”
JC: When Ashbery does it it’s very much a pastoral that’s happening in language and playing with tradition and expectations, and when other poets are writing it’s just a “nature poem.” I’m not very interested in nature poems. I’ve been tempted many times to revise Robert Grenier’s declaration into: I HATE NATURE. An exaggeration of course. What’s hard for me about pastoral is that it’s always about the fantasy. It’s the virtuality, if you like, to go back to Grossman, it’s the virtual nature of poems that interests me. I’ve actually been very slow to appreciate pastoral poems that contain a lot of empirical natural content. I’m not necessarily interested in species of perennial wildflowers. I am very interested in pollution and those kinds of natural phenomena, I’m interested in basically any kind of poetic stance that makes us conscious of the virtuality, that makes us conscious of how we humanize the natural. And what I like about the necropastoral side of things, which was first theorized by Joyelle McSweeney, is that it reverses things and focuses our attention on the uncanny naturalness of human bodies and drives. To die is very natural, as Whitman didn’t say. To be not alive and yet still moving around is very natural, or is very natural for humans. So it just seems to be a category that organizes a lot of really interesting, really conscious play by all these different poets with a lot of the concerns that I associate with Language poetry, with the desire to negotiate with systems. The environment is the biggest system there is; though, of course there are innumerable sub-systems and habitats and so forth. I’m interested in watching poets negotiate with things. I’m interested in the pastoral side of things, rather than the ecopoetic, not that there’s really an opposition, but it is a different emphasis. And where I see the ecopoetics category, which is broader, as having to do with all sorts of ways of thinking the natural world and the physical world in poetry, with pastoral there’s always that element of fantasy, that fragment of ideology that you will never expunge, and then this desire. I revert to the Frank O’Hara quotation, which is the epigraph of the anthology: “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless there’s a record store or a subway handy. . .”
SR: There’s also a bit in that poem [“Meditations in an Emergency”] about not committing perverted acts in pastures or singing the praises of the pastoral life.
JC: That’s right, all that stuff is terrific.
SR: I’d be curious to hear more about your take on Ashbery’s pastoral, if that’s interesting to you.
JC: I wrote about it a little bit in a critical introduction to the anthology, and we ultimately decided not to run it but it will be available on the book’s website. Because the anthology is very much a snapshot-of-the-now anthology, it doesn’t try to be historical. Everything reprinted in the book was first published after 1995, because I did want to explore how pastoral was interacting with the new environmental consciousness and consciousness of global crisis that got more concrete in that time. I do talk about forebears and forerunners in modernism. I’ve got a section titled “The Postmodern Pastoral: From Snyder to Ashbery” and there’s kind of a movement there—Snyder of course is a big ecopoetic figure—and I talk about how he’s more interested in the vagaries and implications of language than he gets credit for. And I move through Duncan and Ronald Johnson back to Olson and then Ashbery. I talk about “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”, all the rivers, and I see there an echo of the way that someone like Stevens would use place names—he famously puts these exotic names in his poems, but he’s never actually been there. “I placed a jar in Tennessee”—he just liked the sound of “Tennessee.” So I like that, I sort of speak up for that. Flow Chart is, for me, the most pastoral of Ashbery’s poems, less for its references to nature than for its presentation of the natural as part of the organic flow of all sorts of discourse and detritus.
I’ve always loved the irresponsiblity in fiction and poetry of writing about places you’ve never been. I love Kafka’s Amerika, the way he describes the Statue of Liberty in the wrong way and it’s still convincing somehow. Certainly I’ve been influenced a little bit by Angus Fletcher, he writes a good deal about Ashbery in that book of his [A New Theory for American Poetry: Demoncracy, the Environment, and the Future of the Imagination]. The notion of the environment-poem. I certainly see that in a poem like Flow Chart.
SR: Do you find the “environment-poem” rubric useful, or transferrable to more exotic writers than the three that he picks (Clare, Whitman, and Ashbery).
JC: Yes, well clearly Ashbery’s as far out as Fletcher’s capable of encountering. Is it useful? It’s interesting. Here I revert to my work as a teacher—I teach an environmental writing course, and a lot of my work in that course is primarily in getting students to think in terms of or try to accomplish that leveling that we spoke about earlier. To say, OK the self is in a field and it’s not necessarily more important than the objects in that field, even though it organizes the field. So getting them to realize the potential of poetry—really just very simply to write about things other than, or at least in addition to, personal experience. I teach undergrads and the notion that you can write a poem about a water treatment facility is just eye-opening, that you can actually tackle any subject matter in a poem.
SR: I’m just not sure I quite understand what “environment-poem” means. I’ve been through the book a few times and I think it’s an idea that looks good glimpsed at obliquely, but when you actually stare at it, it becomes evasive.
JC: I think I feel sort of similarly.
SR: So take John Clare, I get it, we’re going for a walk through the woods and it’s documentary realism, but in what sense is there a virtual space of the poem that you’re moving through? This is where I feel the concept is limited. Going back to what you said earlier about the trouble with “nature poems” not drawing attention to the linguistic medium or to the ideological biases that might be lurking beneath the surface. On the one hand you have Jameson saying there is no “nature”, just culture. And on the other hand you have Fletcher saying the poem, a cultural artifact, can become a natural space. And I wonder if postmodern pastoral is one rubric which more satisfyingly mediates these two positions?
JC: I certainly think that a poem can be an installation, I would go that far. And a poem can imitate the natural. I did try to write about something similar to this in the Zukofsky chapter of my dissertation, where I talk about 80 Flowers. In my reading, those poems are on the one hand trying to present in this almost Gertrude Stein-y way the actuality of the plant in question without describing it. But on the other hand, they’re just very strange little linguistic artifacts whose relationship to the flower in question is pretty notional. But there is something there. I was trying to argue that Zukofsky, by letting language happen, is participating in a kind of phusis that is inspired by and imitates the way that a flower appears. And I was trying to say something about Kant and “purposiveness without purpose”. In that sense, we could talk all day about how poems can try to do that, but at the end of the day, they’re natural in the same kind of unhelpful way that a Volvo is natural, made by human beings, is something that evolved. And so a Volvo presumably serves some evolutionary purpose. But by that point you’re thinking so broadly that the word “nature” becomes meaningless.
What I like about Ashbery, and where I think he’s an important precursor or path into this postmodern pastoral thing is that he will describe or present you with a landscape but he’s so parodically self-conscious about the fictionality of that landscape that the reader really has to choose—this goes back to that idea of choice I was talking about earlier, or the Event and mini-events. In every line of Ashbery you are constantly making choices. How do I read this? How do I take this? Is this a real river? Who does this “she” refer to? Pronoun play. So, to read Ashbery you either just let it all wash over you or you’re constantly making choices and second-guessing those choices. And that, I think, feels kind of like I imagine a naturalist must feel who is trying to decide where one habitat begins and another one ends.
SR: I find that to be a very useful formulation for Ashbery—the idea that he always presents you with interpretive options, that the literal and figurative readings are equally available and appropriate.
If I could, I want to switch gears again and ask you about your novel—I take it you’ve finished it?
JC: It is finished. I’ve sent it out to a few places. I got one nibble from an agent who’s reading a sample chapter now. Who knows? It’s a new world for me, a completely different economy. I’m hopeful but we will see how long it takes to get out there.
SR: Having finished it, would you be willing to reflect a bit on the process? Perhaps speaking to what it meant to go from writing poetry to prose? It seems like you might have found your way into the novel unexpectedly?
JC: Yeah, it began as the desire to write prose, the desire to write sentences. I just got interested in the possibilities of sentences as opposed to lines. The critic Michael Theune who wrote a very generous review of Severance Songs not that long ago has done a lot to help influence my thinking, or make my thinking more concrete, about the importance of “turns” in poetry, the volta. In fact, I just wrote a little essay, on Duncan again, for a webzine that he and Kim Addonizio are putting out called Voltage that will go live in the Fall. I had written some prose poems and I’m interested generally in the line break—I always tell my students that’s where it’s at, that is the thing that distinguishes a poem from any other kind of writing, that you introduce these breaks, these gaps that the reader must negotiate. Some of the gaps are very subtle and some yawn very widely and you’re in another country entirely from one line to the next. And of course there’s all kind of sophisticated play.
So, I was interested in writing sentences and that very different logic, and seeing where the turns would come. Or maybe they wouldn’t come? I’d been very skeptical about fiction for years. I mean I loved it for a long time. I read a lot of fiction growing up and into my twenties, I wanted to be a prose writer, and I wrote most of a novel which I recently discovered again in a box because we’re moving and was like, “Oh this thing again, just following me around.” It’s very exotic because it’s a typescript and there are no other copies. So if something happens to it, that is that. But I have no desire to finish it or rewrite it because it’s very much a 25-year-old’s novel, and that’s no longer me.
Anyway, when you’re not seriously interested in fiction—and my energies were concentrated on poetry—then what tends to come your way, or what comes over the transom are the kinds of things you find in the NYT book review and the New Yorker. And I found mainstream fiction and literary realism unspeakably boring and fraudulent in its techniques. I just didn’t buy it, literally. So I didn’t read any fiction for a very long time. I think also there was a gap between my most primitive desires for fiction—when I was reading the most fiction as a teenager I was reading fantasy novels, and the books that I loved were books in which the author would conjure a whole other world, like Tolkien, where there are languages and cultures and a history and geographical phenomena invented out of whole cloth. I loved world-building much more than the story. But I discovered that my models when I was getting interested in writing were all modernists. Of course, Joyce and Woolf do not create fantasy worlds. I did not understand at the time that there was a great deal of world-building in a book like Mrs. Dalloway because I mistook it for an imitation of consciousness, for psychological mimesis, which was not as interesting to me. But gradually a number of influences came my way, starting around 2008 or ‘07, where I began to discover to realize that there were possibilities for prose or for fiction that were not confined to mimetic realism. Which is an absurd thing to be discovering in your late thirties, but there I was figuring out this thing that everyone with a serious interest in fiction had already figured out. I began to think of the novel as being not necessarily some kind of representation of reality, some painting of what is already there. Which, as you know from what I say about poetry, is not particularly interesting to me. I want to see the mind moving among the objects and handling them. Not the things themselves. I began to realize that a novel could be a primarily verbal and rhetorical performance as opposed to primarily mimetic. Then I began to get excited and started writing these sentences that became paragraphs and I was also like everybody else, discovering in English translations the works of Roberto Bolaño, who was a very attractive figure because of course he identified as a poet—though I’ve only read one book of his poems, I don’t have any Spanish, so I read The Romantic Dogs, which is a book of poems New Directions put out, and I was like, “Ehh, not such great poems.” But the novels and stories are fantastic. I always feel a little embarrassed for America that we all discover one writer and only one writer all at the same time, like, “People from other countries can write! Wow!” It was all Bolaño all the time for a while. But that’s not his fault, and the fact is there is something very rich there, and he is able to do this thing where he conjures these worlds that seem very psychologically and politically charged. And he’s also playing with genre tropes that I’ve always been attracted to, the “hard-boiled” thing—I love Hammett and Chandler. And he also was a permission-granting figure in the sense that he wrote about poets. Every writer must have that “Aha!” moment when they realize, “Oh, I can write about my experience?” Although it’s funny because I ended up cutting all the poetry stuff from my novel—there’s a whole subplot that turned into its own entity, which I might try to do something with someday, but I ended up cutting it.
The form of the novel is hard to escape from, though, so as I was writing this prose, which is almost essayistic in parts, characters began to emerge, and plot began to come into being. And it’s a strange book because I feel the first half of it has a sort of essayistic quality, I won’t say poetic, but essayistic or voiced, and that was the other thing I came to appreciate about the novel and the possibility of the novel was its capacity to be polyvocal. Years ago I first read Bakhtin, and he basically says “Poetry = bad” because it’s monoglossic and “Novel = good” because it’s heteroglossic and polyglossic. And I thought this was ridiculous and wrote essays about it in grad school, saying of course poems can be heteroglossic…
SR: They can “do the police in different voices”…
JC: Exactly. But you know, now? I think he was right. I think there’s something essentially monoglossic or single-voiced about the poem, at least the lyric poem, and I’m kind of enchanted with the capacity of prose to have multiple narrators, multiple points of view, and I do think there’s something about poetry, or something about the way we read poetry—and it’s not poetry’s fault—but so much hinges on the charisma and image of the author of the poem, because we come to poems without the same context and apparatus that we bring to a work of fiction. So a lot falls on the shoulders of the idea we have of who the poet is. Even when he does “do the police in different voices,” there is grim old Tom Eliot half-smiling away. We never lose sight of him. I like that, I like the polyvocality, the ability to throw all kinds of material in there. But I did see in the second half of the book, it suddenly became a lot more like a novel. There are scenes, characters doing things. And I threw out a great deal of material. The complete manuscript is about 300 pages, and I threw out at least 200 pages of material, not bad material but unnecessary to the novel’s trajectory, which I don’t know what I’m going to do with, if anything. And it was a wonderful vacation from poetry, I needed to step out of the place I’d been. Because when you’re in grad school, as you know, you’re working so hard to develop a particular critical position, and if you’re a writer too you have to respond to that position creatively or else you feel like a hypocrite or just dumb. Then you become a teacher and you’re explaining all the time, you’re a village explainer, and you’re constantly trying to reduce things to their simplest terms, at least if you’re teaching undergrads as I am. And it was really good to move into a sphere for a couple of years where I wasn’t doing that, and I was just letting the poetry be. And trying to let go a bit of the compulsion that academia very dangerously reinforced in me to over-explain. I appreciate what you said at the start of this conversation about how I bring the theoretical to bear, but I do sometimes feel a little trapped by that tendency. And I admire some of my dearest friends, like Sarah Gridley (who’s in the anthology), who just won’t say anything about her work: she doesn’t write about it, she doesn’t tweet, she doesn’t blog, even in conversation she’s very slow and hesitant. She’s guarding her imaginative freedom in a way I respect, and I sometimes think I’ve been a bit careless about that.
SR: Do you think the structure of the novel beginning in an essayistic mode and then moving into actual scenes, actual characters doing things, might recapitulate this tendency to access or enable the creative through the theoretical?
JC: Well, of course I did do some revising. So there’s a little more consistency than what I just described. For example, many of the early chapters were written about an entity I refer to as The New Reader and writing about this person’s function’s relationship to reading, and thinking about the fate of reading in our electronic post-literate age, and so forth. And then as I began to develop more of the story there was this woman, Ruth, an unhappily married woman who is haunted by her dead mother in this very literal way. And at some point, I don’t even think there was an “Aha!” moment, but just at some point I realized gradually that The New Reader and Ruth were the same person. Then I was able to let them interact in this new way. So The New Reader’s kind of the more theoretical thing and Ruth’s the character, but now in the novel it’s completely blurred, which I enjoy. I’m always in writing trying to bring as many levels into play at once as I can. Once I began to experiment with the architecture of the book—I have all these pieces—and once I began to see they could relate to each other in all these different ways, that’s when I really got into it, and thought this genre and I could really do business together.
SR: That reminds me of two books. First, Virginia Woolf’s comment that the characters in The Waves were these six separate entities that were tunneling toward each other, and they meet at the end. The other is David Markson, and The Reader, Writer, etc.
JC: Yes, I love those books too. I love them differently. I’m not of the cult of Markson, but there’s a very pure quality to the pleasure I get from those books. And that purity is the thing that seems the most un-novelistic about him. The other thing that I’m trying to cultivate in myself is against this inner Robespierre who wants everything to be all pure and Cartesian and French, and I have this other impulse to be more Whitmanian and shaggy. And I do feel like it’s much, much harder for Robespierre to be in charge when I’m writing prose, it’s a much messier thing. Messiness and vulnerability are much more interesting to me than when I was younger. I think like many young people, and many young men, I wasted a lot of energy trying to construct an invulnerable façade to negotiate what was a very confusing and terrifying world. But now I’m less afraid to be confused and terrified.
SR: Would you consider your earlier book, Fourier Series, to be a Robespierrean project, then?
JC: Well, in that book those impulses are openly at war with each other. Fourier was of course not a revolutionary, he was appalled by it, but he definitely partakes of that hyper-rational, yet completely fanatical and irrational belief in the perfectibility of man, so in that sense he really is a child of the French Revolution. On the one hand that impulse is all over that book, on the other there is the much messier, particular material, the actual landscape, the overlays of cultural detritus I bring in there: the John Wayne stuff, the Hollywood stuff. At the time I was writing it I found myself thinking the thing I liked about the figure of the quadrant was how the horizontal and the vertical represented these two opposed impulses, these basic impulses, which I associate in American poetry with Dickinson and Whitman. Dickinson being the poet of the vertical. The poem just plunges—“then a plank in reason broke”—and you’re just like where the fuck am I. Versus Whitman, the horizontalist, who’s just gonna keep on scrolling, keep on scrolling.
SR: This reminds me of a comment Peter Gizzi once made that Dickinson is the father of American poetry, and Whitman is the mother. And maybe that’s a good place to conclude?
JC: Yes, I think it might be.