The Poetry Collider
Rae Armantrout on the Intersection of Art, Science, and Life
Rae Armantrout’s latest collection of poetry, Itself, is available from the Wesleyan Poetry Series.
Adam Fitzgerald: I’m always curious to learn where titles come from, how they slingshot around and achieve their justice in a writer’s minds. Can you tell me about the title of your new collection, Itself? Inevitably, there’s an ars poetic ring, but also, to my ears, something of Duns Scotus’ quiddity, the thisness of the thing, the thingness of the thing. I’ve read enough by, or rather on, Hegel to also recognize that turn in his philosophy when the in-itself becomes the for-itself. But here I stop short of too much windy speculation.
Rae Armantrout: “Itself” is a word we use very casually. We say things like, “The sun itself is in motion” or “The rock itself remained cool,” as if we took for granted that we knew what a self was and that this self could be ascribed to a wide variety of objects including, of course ourselves—but, unless we’re philosophers or neuroscientists, we seldom think about what we mean by self. In other words, it’s a strange word with a lot of largely unexamined baggage. At some point, I guess, I found the word itself (the word “itself”) rather comic. The highly valued self and the abject “it” inextricably conjoined. The decorator crab that I used on the cover of the book is a perfect version of an itself. I can’t tell whether it’s orange and blue or whether it’s orange and is covered with a blue patchy growth of some kind. It has definitely covered itself with green anemones. It has no visible face (may not be a real crab?) but it seems to be saying, “Look at me.” I did play around with the Hegelian turn on “quiddity” in my poem “Soft Money” (from Money Shot). “They want to be / the thing-in-itself // and the-thing-for-you — // Miss Thing / but can’t.” I guess I haven’t quite exhausted the topic. (Ha.)
Fitzgerald: The decorator crab is a resounding image, if you’ll forgive me, for considering your poetic sense of line and phrase. It seems like you’ve constructed a poetic work out of scavenging, concocting, foraging distinctly American vernaculars and contemporary jargons together. Yet like the crab shell, or trash-heap, it’s ambiguous how much you desire/expect readers to piece back together where your gorgeous strings of utterance draw from. So often poetry criticism takes on the literary approach of a detective, recreating the scene of the crime of the imagination. And your work, I wonder, might be challenging us to see more where to go (future tense) from your linguistic teasing, pulling apart, yoking incongruous bits together. Does your work strike you this way? Has it always?
Armantrout: You’re right that my poems draw from a variety of vernaculars, jargons, and tonal registers. Sometimes they include found text or overheard speech, but such literal appropriation probably makes up no more than—I don’t know—one tenth of the work overall. And I don’t care whether a reader can identify the origin of a particular phrase. I do want them to be able to imagine the sort of source the words might have had. For instance, might these words have been said by a news anchor? Might they have been lifted from a financial report, a fan site, or a physics text? The fact is that I sometimes quote things (with or without quotation marks), but more often I make up phrases which are supposed to sound as if they come from a particular context, a certain kind of speaker. For instance, in the poem “Price Points,” in Itself, the last five lines were taken from financial reporting. I don’t remember the exact source, but it was a popular media outlet. The second and third stanzas, on the other hand, are not actually quotes. They’re meant to mimic the tone and psychology of the judges on shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent.
I like the idea that we can make new, provisional entities out of whatever the world throws at us. I think that’s how we create our personalities—and it’s how I write poems.
Fitzgerald: One of the textures you mention above, “a physics text,” seems especially attractive to your imagination throughout Itself. The first poem in the book, “Chirality” offers:
A massless particle
passes through the void
with no resistance.
Ask what it means
to pass through the void.
Ask how it differs
from not passing.
Readers who have seen Particle Collider or other recent documentaries, not to mention physics buffs, might chuckle to see your Beckett-like humor on display here regarding the famously elusive, and recently discovered, Higgs-Boson particle.
Two things I want to ask, do you have any particular interest in science or physics, as a student or amateur enthusiast? (I ask as someone who found myself devouring popular books and documentaries about quantum mechanics last year after completing a binge indulgence of all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation).
Second, you seem particularly drawn to the microscopic, the small, the particle, the dot or pronoun, the itch or dot, tip or ion, speck or chip, your poems filled often with a “little flick-tail.” Does the small scale have a big hold on your poetic imagery, imagination, sense of experimental lyric poetry?
Armantrout: Yes, several poems in the book (“Chirality,” “Split,” “Material,” “The Matter,” “Two and Two”) were partly inspired by a book by physicist Brian Cox called The Quantum Universe (and why whatever can happen does). I think “Head,” which also draws on physics, might have been set off by an article in Scientific American about beta decay. And I too saw the movie about the discovery of the Higgs Boson. I think it was called Particle Fever. The Higgs does have a mass, according to the film, and one that puzzled the scientists involved. Its mass didn’t quite support either the super symmetry theory or the multiple universe theory. Anyway, that Cox book really got me going for awhile. I doubt I will ever write a book with so much material drawn from one source again. But I’m pretty sure I will always want to read about the latest scientific ideas. So I guess I am an “amateur enthusiast.”
As for my attraction to the small in general, I see what you mean, though I had never thought about it quite that way. I’m fascinated by tiny poems that “work,” like “In a Station of the Metro,” for instance. And my own poems, as you know, tend to be built of little sections often separated by asterisks so that I’m always stopping and starting. I think I’m drawn to edges, borders, say, between being and non-being, life and the inanimate, continuing and going on or, as I wrote in the opening poem of my first book, Extremities: “The glitter of edges / again catches the eye // to approach these swords!” In my poems, I like to veer suddenly, as if escaping something and I also like sudden stops, cliff hangers. I think this is more about me (something in me) than it is about experimental lyric poetry, which comes in different sizes and at different speeds. Maybe my poems are “little flick-tails.” I didn’t think I was being self-referential when I wrote that line, but, maybe, in a way, I was.
Fitzgerald: Who are the artists that have shaped your poetic imagination the most, even the technical aspects of it, your famous sense of lineation and fragmentation? Sculpture seems like an inevitable context for your work.
Armantrout: I’m afraid that my knowledge of sculpture is pretty sketchy. Living my life in California, mostly in San Diego, has not provided me with much knowledge of the arts. When I travel, I go to museums, of course. The Folger Library and The Phillips Collection in DC just brought me to present my work in conjunction with the opening of a Man Ray exhibit. They had an intuition that his “mathematical objects,” as he called one series, and the arrangement of disparate images in his photos and paintings would resonate with my poems. I was to choose some of his pieces and pair each with one of my poems. I displayed a power point image of the Man Ray behind me and talked about it a bit before reading the selected poem. I had never done anything like that before and it was very interesting. I was able to see formal relations between his work and mine but some of the psychological content of his pieces was disturbing. There’s a severed female breast, for instance, which is oriented so that at first it looks like a pyramid until you notice the nipple at one base. Then there’s the one with a chess piece, and the bust of a thoughtful looking man in the foreground and, in the background, the grainy photo of a woman (actress?) crying. There’s a kind of ambient misogyny, in other words. Of course, that isn’t unique to him and I worked it into my presentation.
It’s easier to talk about the poets who’ve influenced me. Emily Dickinson continually provokes me. I learned practical things from reading Williams and Creeley. I love Lorine Niedecker. I could list many more but those were the early personal favorites.
Fitzgerald: Did you come to poetry through Dickinson or Creeley? I remember asking you about starting out writing and how you didn’t really have a mentor-poet figure in your young life, though you traveled in the circles of Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. I’m curious to know how you began and at what point it crystallized—if it ever did as naively as this question implies—as a lifelong vocation.
Armantrout: I’m going to answer this question backwards. My mother read me poems even before I started school. They seemed magical to me. I remember the children’s poem “Winkem, Blinkem, and Nod,” for instance. When I was in first grade, I happened to have a teacher who liked poetry. I wonder if there are teachers like that in the public schools these days. She had all the kids make up poems and bound them into little mimeo books. Mine went “The little fish swim / around and around / and away.” So I was already a modernist! Later on, in high school, I wrote a lot of terrible poetry. I arrived in Berkeley in 1969 and moved to San Francisco in 1972 so I couldn’t have connected with Spicer. Besides, I don’t imagine he would have had much use for a girl hanging around. I met Duncan briefly on a couple of occasions. Robert Creeley was living near San Francisco in Bolinas, but I didn’t meet him then. Despite the fact I started writing when I was a kid, I was kind of a slow starter as a serious poet. I mean I wrote slowly. My first book didn’t come out until 1978, shortly before I left the Bay Area. So that made me diffident—though, inwardly, I always did have a sense of “vocation.” I learned a lot from peers like Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, and Carla Harryman. Back then I assumed that men of the older generation wouldn’t take a girl seriously and that, what’s more, if they were heterosexual, they would want a young woman to pay for their attention with sex. I’m sure this wasn’t always the case, but that male privilege was something women had to deal with in those days. Now you’ll ask why I didn’t find a female mentor. Good question. I don’t know.
I discovered Dickinson long before I did Creeley. There were some poems of hers in an anthology edited by Louis Untermeyer that I got when I was in high school. I really liked the way she said unexpected, radical (or so it seemed to me) things about God and love. I read my first Williams in that anthology too. He showed me that poetry could sound good without having a traditional meter or rhyme scheme. I started to try to copy his line. Later, when I was a student at Berkeley, I took a class with Denise Levertov and she introduced me to Creeley’s work.
Fitzgerald: Can you talk to me about your process and how that has changed (or not) over time? In the past decade, there seems to be a crystallization of what is essentially the style or manner of a Rae Armantrout poem. Of course, this might sound too reductive. But as your work masters “itself,” I wonder how an advanced and accomplished poet like yourself is aware of seeming to be at the peak of their powers. Is mastery something you think about, embrace, resist?
Armantrout: Thank you for asking such a kind question! “Mastery” seems kind of creepy, of course, though maybe not as creepy as being a “master.” But, to answer the substance of your question, I have no particular sense of being at the peak of my powers. I mean I don’t think I’ve gotten worse, but I’m sure you could find one or more people who disagree with that. It might be helpful if you gave me an example of a recent poem that seems to “crystallize” my style. I am conscious, of course, of the way my poems tend to take certain forms. They often have three discrete sections; they often seem to have short lines. Sometimes I do try to work against my own norm though. I write prose poems or prose sections as parts of poems from time to time. In the manuscript I’m working on now there are several poems that draw more directly or more obviously from my own life than before perhaps. That feels scary. I don’t want to overemphasize this though. For one thing, those poems may never see the light of day. For another, that difference may not be as obvious as I think it is. Anyway, thanks again for saying this kind thing.
Fitzgerald: Can you talk to me more about what feels scary in drawing upon the personal or autobiographical for you, poetically or aesthetically? It seems much experimental literature of our moment, from Chris Kraus and Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Kate Zambreno, to Claudia Rankine and Bhanu Kapil, contains a drive to radicalize and innovate the contours of ordinary lives, whether formally, conceptually, or in meta-fiction. Yet as I say this I’m reminded how singularly your work operates in a much more oblique manner—towards an Oppen-like clarity or rigor of lyric expression.
Armantrout: Good point. We might also mention Eileen Myles, for instance, among others. It’s not that I don’t write from my own life experience. I do that all the time. I mean the objects that come into my poems, for instance, are things in my house, my yard, or my neighborhood. But, most of the time, I don’t specifically claim the things or the experiences as mine. I allow that to be assumed by the reader or not. To “own” my experiences I would have to be separate from them, to stand aside and gesture towards them. That seems false to me somehow. Plus I think I have some discomfort with what reads as autobiography because I came up as a poet during the ascendency of the post-confessionalists and I (we, my cohort) tended to feel that the way they dealt with personal experience was limiting.
I don’t think there’s a real or clear distinction to be made between private and public. As I’ve said elsewhere, there’s nothing more personal than telling your dreams, supposedly, but what if you dream about a popular actor? Your dreams are culturally inscribed (of course). I don’t like to compartmentalize. I don’t think we can separate feeling from thinking. I would say all of my poems start with feelings—but I can have a feeling about something I read in a book about physics! And my reading is part of my experience. So, that’s my usual position on these matters. That said, I have written some quite autobiographical and personal poems. The one called “Own” in Versed was begun while I was still in the hospital after a radical cancer surgery. It mentions the ICU specifically and it includes what might be considered embarrassing hallucinations and dreams. So I guess the two or three poems I was referring to in my last answer aren’t even all that new for me. The thing that was making me uncomfortable is that they mention my husband and son in a way that makes it clear who I’m talking about. I’m not entirely comfortable with that. They also present our behavior and attitudes as somewhat suspect. That’s all. You can see one of them, called “Asymmetries,” in (I believe) the October issue of Poetry.