Poets Rodrigo Toscano and Sandra Simonds talk about their new books, The Charm & The Dread (Fence Books, 2022), Triptychs (Wave Books, forthcoming November 2022), the downsides of Cultural Managerial Class (CMC’s), lived-life conditions of poetic production, the perils of topicality, motherhood, the sexuality of poems themselves, geo-political musings, and more.
Rodrigo Toscano: Wonderful talking to you again, Sandra. The world has flipped over a dozen times since we last spoke. But here we are. Yeah, so, I don’t know how you do it—but you do it—consistently—and spectacularly: collapse socially-determined exteriorities onto pressurized visionary internalities. Your poetics is like a contact zone between the two forces. The whoosh in, the whoosh out.
You conjure up poetic succubae/incubi that slink comfily-discomfited between “you” (in-the-world) and the world’s (as its worlds on) contested spaces, where the overlord of those spaces is the Techno-Feudalist Late-Capitalist granite reality we bang our heads on—continuously. That uber-reality is something out of our reach, and at the same time tucked in so tight we can barely sense it. But your poetry senses it.
Another thing that intrigues me is your devotion to the outdoors, plants, animals, people, the sky, the water. You’re also a committed bucolic poet, as it turns out. And there’s all these exterior crushing social forces just around the corner. I so appreciate how you navigate those tensions, meeting the challenge to mess with all of it. At once.
So, these days I make a distinction, a rather playful (but insisting) distinction between left-liberal poetics and socialist poetics. Sad to say, but I’m feeling a deep paucity of the latter. North American contemporary poetics is dominated by accommodationist left-liberal practices that are all too happy to lapse into prefabbed spaces of neutered micro “resistances.” Me-me poetry. To the hilt.
If there’s a distinction to be made between (left-liberal) Come-To-Me poetry and (socialist propositional) Go-To-You poetry (who doesn’t prefer a midway point, of course), I would say the vibe now weighs heavily towards Come-To-Me poetry. I mean… am I on track here? What do you think? Also, is that (externality/internality) “whoosh in, whoosh out” something you do consciously?
Sandra Simonds: Your question is very intellectually exciting!
First, I have to say what I love about an exchange like this is jumping into the deep end of a commitment to poetry as a medium for thinking through the political, social, internal realms and beyond. Part of a good Marxist/materialist education is that it allows anyone (writer, worker, student whoever) to denaturalize ideology and to start thinking beyond the “me,” or at least to think “what makes me me.” If I feel like I want to commit suicide or drink myself to death, I need to know what this means beyond some sort of reductivist clinical explanation. If I see an article scrolling with a title like “The End of Nature,” I want to know why I can’t bring myself to read it. I try to be extremely attentive to my encounters with the world beyond me.
I don’t think our poems have to self-flagellate to be meaningful. That seems very Puritanical to me. Too American.
So, certain feelings and, of course, poetry is often centered on feeling, are interpreted differently when you feel like this could all have been different, that the world didn’t have to become a continuous and unrelenting assault on our mind, body and spirit.
One thing I find fascinating about your new book, The Charm & The Dread is how you open up with these very cliché lines that we hear in meditation “there is not past / there is no future / there is only now / there is only now.” Your lines suggest that meditation can be a metaphor for failures in collectivity—like all that we have left, conceivably, is trying to find some sort of individual comfort in a minuscule sliver of the moment. We see this problem very acutely at workplaces that will pay or sponsor mindfulness training or yoga while simultaneously dumping loads of money on consulting firms that destroy unions. Like we should learn to be comfortable with degradation.
I also like how you repeat the word “ocean” for several lines. I wonder if that, in itself, is a protest. Just the word sitting there like that like you are reminding yourself of some memory of nature. Am I interpreting your poem correctly?
RT: Yeah, you’re on it. There’s all those layers in the title piece to the book. There’s an implicit critique of meditation start-up rituals, but also, going with it to some extent. Like you, I question supposed “personal” social practices that enter our lives.
In my life, I have to deal with both bureaucratic government professionals and poetry practitioners/evaluators. I’m always encountering values and rituals of all kinds. And the power of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC) (or Cultural Managerial Class, CMC) in literature is that practices all manner of virtue hoarding rituals aimed to train folks on how to accommodate themselves within a neoliberalist framework. And so I push back on that. “Take a deep breath in / Take a deep breath out” is indeed something good to do, but the promulgation of such “centering” ideologies is another matter.
You know, the late (and great) Audre Lorde is famous for saying “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The stakes for her were capitalism + patriarchy + racism. Very high stakes indeed. And I have the deepest appreciation for building alternative fugitive and resistive spaces as something To Be Done.
And yet, at times, it’s precisely the “masters tools” that we want to use. We’re in a unique historical predicament now where we have real oligarchs like Jeff Bezos (along with the finance and military machine moguls), along with a handmaiden class to those oligarchs that enforce their rule at the level of micro-managerial virtue-hoarding (I get that term from Catherine Liu by the way).
All the policing of our minds by the endless HR workshops on diversity and inclusion, without promoting squat in the wider world about material leveling of inequality, is something to take on. I see too much of American poetics as largely a managerial endeavor. There are, of course, tons of exceptions, but who’s not reeling from this regime in some way or other?
And one form of managerialism is topicality: “What’s this poem about?”. What box can our minds and bodies be put into. So much of your poetics is about splicing of “topic.” As a materialist, you mess with all sorts of phenomenon—neighborhood, pressures on the body—yours/others, global politics, cultural regionalism. There’s a commitment to a radical simultaneity of actual occurrences as well as to liminal, but still burning sub-occurrences.
Which brings me to your newest collection, Triptychs. In it, you juxtapose three poems onto each page. The poems employ very tight short lines that sizzle down the page so that the reader engages three poems on the same space. But these pieces are not “contrapuntals,” that is, poems to be read in multiple directions. The poems are integral to themselves while kin to each other. They’re resistant to containment reading strategies. I’m wondering how you arrived at Triptychs. And also, what’s changed for you, poetically speaking, say, in the last two years?
SS: There’s a lot here, but let’s take the management aspect of the poetry world and focus on the large institutions—AWP and the Poetry Foundation come to mind. When I started publishing my work about twenty years ago, as you know, the Poetry Foundation didn’t exist. No one that I knew went to AWP or had ever even heard of it.
But over the last two decades, as financial precarity has risen in academia, poetry has become more highly centralized and commodified. Twenty years ago, we were still talking about schools of poetry, and ideological differences that surfaced as aesthetic difference. “The School of Quietude,” comes to mind which was a name given to poets who wrote politically neutral poetry but “got ahead” in academia. These people were seriously ridiculed.
The last decade has seen a shift away from the influence of postmodernism which favored linguistic difficulty into an aesthetic that is highly personal, linguistically straightforward and often, but not always, based on subject position. This personal narrative poetry is easily commodified in capitalist culture because it effortlessly takes the complexities of poetry and flattens and reduces it into taggable content. Identity becomes branding. Alcoholic? Brand. Descendent of Jewish Holocaust Survivors? Brand. (I am using myself as an example here because I am both of those things!)
What a poem is “about” as you have already mentioned is, again, reducible content. You can pitch it in the marketplace. If you want to use the paradigm of the Professional Managerial Class, one could argue that there is extraordinary pressure, as Catherine Liu has pointed out, on affect management, self-control, political uniformity and saying the “right” thing.
By “right” I mean content that reflects liberal values that liberals can nod their heads to in agreement. Liu says that the PMC is like the superego that, at heart, is a sadist. So, if a poet publishes a poem that isn’t “in the know” and hasn’t been properly “managed” through, say, an MFA program where through an extraordinary investment of time and resources, the “correct” values are established and replicated, the person risks saying something offensive and triggering an entire surveillance mechanism.
This isn’t specific to poetry—it is pervasive in every aspect of late capitalist life. What is social media about? It’s about personal narrative, affect, and surveillance. These technologies train people to stay in line and follow specific scripts (a colonizing of interiority) and those scripts are almost never anti-capitalist.
It’s worth asking what we want from poetry. Do we want to be challenged, or do we want the poem to reflect what we have already seen and heard? And probably that most necessary question to ask is who benefits from all of this conformity? And I would wager the answer is the large institutions that have used their wealth to consolidate power within these spaces and to extract more wealth because this is just what capitalism does whether it’s in the realm of poetry or not.
I’m saying all of this, not as a kind of finger pointing “you worked for this large institution” or “you are a ‘professor’” or “you have rich parents that supported you through school” sort of way. This is a very simplistic and naïve moralizing that happens on the left. I can’t stand this. If the person who accuses you of working for a large cultural institution has a trust fund and can afford to be critical of you, what does any of this matter? These are always faux purity contests only good at revealing the most basic contradictions of our predicament that we are all steeped in.
I was reading Ammons at the time I started Triptychs. I liked the idea of working with the short line. I think I’m essentially a maximalist, so a short line down the page doesn’t work for me. One day I went to the Dollar Tree in Tallahassee and asked the cashier if I could buy the receipt paper from her. You know, there are cameras everywhere in that place. Talk about surveillance. She sort of looked around, over her shoulder, and said “just take it” and I was like “are you sure?” and she said “yes.”
To me, this exchange was a kind of micro-political moment of solidarity because at that second we were both engaged in an act that was “against” a system. Of course, she had much more to lose than I did. There was also something beautiful about this—like she could sense that I needed the receipt paper for some greater purpose! So, I started writing on strips of this paper and then typing each column and placing them side-by-side on the page.
One of the things I really enjoy about your poetry is that you work with the language of argument. Like the lines “Is the US a nation / or just an economic platform?” It’s a funny thing to ask, but also poignant and memorable. And then you go on, in “Thing & Thang” to think through the differences between platforms and nations. When you sit down to write a poem, are you trying to work out political/social ideas? I’m curious about how the outside world enters into your poetic landscape.
RT: One way to cut into all that is to zoom out onto a geopolitical plane. The two lines that kick off Thing & Thang, “Is the US a nation / or just an economic platform?” are, in the first place, a way to prompt myself to think about questions that bear heavily on culture-making, but on the other hand, they’re meant to spark a thinking between readers/listeners.
Look, if I were a legit oaf in the poetry world, I might corner CMC officialized poets, and ask them, “hey, so… what’s your poetic foreign policy?” “Oh, you don’t have one? That’s unfortunate because there’s several that you operate under, that undergird your every move.” But instead of such raffish behavior (which personally, I would totally reject), I write poems that explore the ideological scaffolding that support culture-making. But not always.
I also crave a sharp contrast of passionate curiosities. For example, I want to be open to cosmic wonder and the perennial quirkiness of homo sapiens as it is. So, “how does the outside world” enter my poetics? By pressure. I’m easily broken. My poetics is a critical crafting of that brokenness. You might say, it’s an essential solidaristic gesture meant to open dialogue towards a renewed sense of action.
Returning a bit to the PMCs. One habit they have is to exclusively punch to the right (and curiously, down). You know, like the “resistance democrats” who played a pivotal role in shooting down the Sanders campaign. To be sure, the hard right is a toxic brew of chauvinisms, full of propaganda that leads to practices that end up harming real people. So keeping the hard right in our sights at all times is absolutely essential.
But a more developed, more thoroughgoing poetic-politic also involves tackling contradictions within what we still faintly call “the left.” There’s knee-jerk regional elitisms, to take just one example, like when people exclaim “how can you live in the south!” There is an ever-increasing number of CMC vocabularies that act as control mechanisms, gate-watching professional affiliation. So, yeah, a poem like “Thing & Thang,” has the implicit function of re-introducing material lines of causality.
Dollar Tree in Tallahassee. Great title for a poem, btw. Many of your poems really capture the contradictions of neo-liberal “self” discipline regimes by propelling those contradictions through the uncanny domains of lived life. Your poems body up to oncoming social collisions. This aspect of your poetics is total Artaud, in the sense of looking for a way out of language, but through language, as against language. The fight reaches such a pitch that the self (of the poem) transcends into a bonfire of conflicting affects. I mean, you mess with Dionysian powers.
And related to that mess, though quite orthogonal to matters of ideological denaturing, I want to ask you about the role of sexuality in your work. It’s never exhibitionistic (a relief). It’s an actual element in your work. Does the phrase, “the role of sexuality” tone for you in any way? And how has mothering effected your poetics up to now?
SS: Motherhood, has had a profound effect on my poetics. I published just one book, Warsaw Bikini, before I had kids, the rest, after that. I think the loss of freedom was one thing, but also, I had to have a job in that I could lose my children. It’s made my poetry urgent, immediate, desperate. I was also a single mom for a long time, so just the stress of that made it feel like if I didn’t write books, I would have nothing for myself.
I remember things like running out of diapers and having to put both kids in the car and drive to the store to get more, and then speed home, putting them to bed. Repeat. I was so tired all the time. My life is a little easier now, but I’m still underpaid. There is no union where I work. I have to basically steal time to write (between classes, at work, in the parking lot of Target, while my kids are at dance or swim lessons). I’ve never had a writing residency. I’ve never had a writing fellowship. I’ve never had a grant. If I get money on top of my real job, it’s always more work—writing reviews or teaching extra workshops.
I remember writing “A Poem for Landlords” in the parking lot of the place where I dropped the landlord his check. I was angry. I am still angry. As you know, my grandparents survived the Holocaust. My grandmother was hidden in a barn in France, that sort of thing. In my family, everything was compared to the war. You basically were not allowed to complain because “your grandparents lived through the war.” In any case, I would not say my life has not been easy, but I also know there is much worse out there.
In terms of sexuality, I wonder if my poems are polyamorous? Or just slutty? A lot of times they are man-haters and sometimes they are indifferent to men and women. I’ve talked about romantic relationships with men and women in my poems, but I have never “identified” as anything specifically. To quote Kathy Acker, “in my world, people are not even sure of their names, they don’t know anything about their own sexuality.”
My poems tend to be cheaters and homewreckers. They seem to hate the confines of heterosexuality or traditional relationships. Maybe they are sexual anarchists? “Orlando,” for example, is trying to work through the pornographic, or the undercurrent / language of the Internet and violence while in a dialogue with Florida, the surface of Florida just beneath the surface propelling it forward—commerce, desire, fantasy, Disney, horror, the gothic, the grotesque, climate crisis, guns and more guns. But there is a not so nice side about sexuality too. We are, after all, animals.
RT: You channel Baudelaire so well (Keith Waldrop’s translation of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil was such a revelation to me. He developed a brilliant writing form that was midway between verse and prose units. He called them “verselets.” My book, Deck of Deeds, employs a lot of verselets.) I mean, you embrace subalternity, and your French Symbolist inlays are cut by a Diane Di Prima-like fury for revolutionary vistas.
It’s funny. In person, you’re generally a soft-spoken person, at least, initially. I’m sure many of your readers who’ve met you for the first time are genuinely amused at the contrast between the fire in your writing and your cool, minor scale, soft jazzy delivery.
Place figures into your writing quite a bit too. There’s this image of burning palms in one of your poems. Now, no way can a non-Californian possibly imagine the pathos of that image. Horror and Reason conjoined. 1991, the year of the Rodney King beating, and the full exposure of late Capitalist hellscapes in sunny climes. You’re a California Marxist thinker. And that requires a high tolerance to atomization and alienation.
My first two books (The Disparities and Partisans) don’t just “aim to capture” but are themselves pure byproduct of the psychic war against alienation and atomization. Yeah, I’m characterizing myself as an existential historical materialist first, and as an “anti-colonialist” historicist second (that term so watered down now by academic speak). Luckily, though, the US is at the same time chock-full of poets now whose parents were displaced by actual post-colonial events, to varying degrees. And those poets express the aftereffects of those historical circumstances.
That said, I’d like to see more re-groundings onto the existential priors of the movements that shape our lives. And on a global scale, I dare say. But to get to that level of scaling, I we have to deal with regional poetic landscapes.
In this hemisphere, we have no major land disputes, no insurgencies, no nation-state wars, nobody is aiming nuclear weapons at anybody else, nobody (or few) has lingering hatred for anybody else. Sandra, we’re blessed! We need to embrace our mutually shared challenges, but also, recognize what the Americas has been working on for over 500 years, namely, how to get people from different cultures, to settle down, and respect each other.
No doubt, we have our Trumps and Bolsonaros, but the trendline is clear. Most people have had it with the worst parts of European culture, while embracing the best of European culture. We also have African diasporic cultures, Indigenous cultures, eastern and southeastern Asian cultures, and more. Ethnonationalism is something we’re fundamentally rejecting, piece by piece. As poets, we’re also engineers of civic nationalisms, and hopefully, architects of a para-civic regionalism. I’m feeling genuinely grateful for all we have in this Zone, and alert to our remaining challenges.
SS: Rodrigo, one thing I love about your work is its connectedness to a certain level of joy and play that I think is a necessary driving force for poetry. I would love for you to talk about this aspect of your work with language. Now, the flip side of that is “left melancholy.” It often creeps up in political poets. It’s necessary at times, but ultimately not sustainable. So, resilience must come into play too.
When I think of someone like Baudelaire, I think of a writer who is just outrageous, maddening, funny, absurd, narcotic, and wild. These emotions and toward the world provide psychological distance and outlet. He squints his eyes at Paris and says, I’ll tell you what I think.
Look, I am totally aware that we are all fucked, but I also like to eat a nice meal, have great sex, and go shopping. I don’t think our poems have to self-flagellate to be meaningful. That seems very Puritanical to me. Too American. So, play is important. We are lucky, for sure, to be poets in this life.
RT: I feel the same way. In terms of playfulness, I honestly, don’t sit down and think, ok, here comes a playful poem. Usually what I am after is a translucent quality. I want the light of the content to shine through all the rhetoric. That requires me testing one word against another, one phrase against another, and I suppose that’s the playful aspect. I toss things around into a shape.
I think like a composer of music, bearing down on tempi, rhythms, harmonic registers, melodic figuration, counterpoint, ornamentation, orchestration. Some folks call it “performative,” but I don’t think of it that way. I’m just doing what the piece requires, and not an ounce more. I hate “more” actually, like when people step on the gas pedal to pieces that don’t have the built-in torque to drive them hard. I really like quiet readings, in fact. I want to hear the movements of peoples’ minds above all.
In terms of “left melancholy,” I was quite prone to it as a young poet. I was too focused what I didn’t want. These days I try and imagine what eudemonia (“human flourishing”) might mean for me, and listen to others, to see what it means for them. I concentrate on what’s common between us and what barriers are in the way towards achieving a shared sense of eudemonia. If I sometimes present a satiric (biting) view of things, it’s because behind it is a positive program that I’m desiring.
Two quick examples: I’d like to see child poverty ended, precisely because I’ve seen what adequate care can do; I don’t want womens’ deliberation over birthing choices curtailed, because I’ve seen what the opposite produces. Obviously, War, is the barrier of barriers in terms of Eudemonia; it scatters to the winds literally all the small, daily, loving intentions we thrive from.
Sandra, it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you about your life and poetics! Your artful messing with it all, is vital to me.