An Interview with Paul Otremba 

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos: First, I’d like to thank you for coming to Denton to read for the kickoff of the Kraken Reading Series.  You read your work beautifully, and we in the audience were grateful to have you.  Before we begin to discuss your first book, The Currency, I’m wondering if you can tell us a bit more about most of the poems you read, which sounded like newer work.  Whereas The Currency is very serious in tone and makes allusions to high art, I noticed that the newer work had references to pop culture, and was often pretty funny.  Are any of these changes intentional?

Paul Otremba: Thank you for having me to Denton. I had a wonderful time at the reading. It was a great venue, and you were spectacular hosts. The majority of what I read is new work. Those poems are from my second book, which I’m calling Pax Americana right now, and it’s scheduled to come out with Four Way Booksin January of 2015. The attempts at humor and the pop culture references you noticed are intentional. After completing The Currency, there was a period of time when new poems were scarce in their arrival, if they came at all. As I was finishing up that manuscript, I felt every new draft I wrote was in some way auditioning for the book, so there were formal and thematic affinities. During the extensive editing that went into the book’s final version, I became painfully aware of those affinities, which on generous days I’d want to call obsessions, and on self-critical days I’d call merely habits. I try to keep a balance between those days.

It took me a while to find the new obsessions. I didn’t want to write the same poems over again. I believe in the work of poetry, of grinding out daily with the art. Reading and playing around with bits of language—which I consider doing my work—can sustain me for a long time, but eventually I want something resembling a draft of a complete poem. Some things I did to pass the time were formal exercises, setting myself arbitrary constraints that potentially could be generative. I don’t think you need an idea to start a poem or even a particular voice figured out. All you need is a little bit of structure to react against, to set some words down in an arrangement and see what they produce. I wrote sonnets and psalms and epistles and these short narrative pieces; those exercises led me to some surprising diction, rhythms, and subjects. I was also treating the poems as repositories for the various things I was thinking about and encountering. I had turned off that internal editor I had needed to guide the subject matter and tone to complete the first book. In that process I realized there were many aspects to my personality (specifically humor) and interests (mostly movies and television) that hadn’t made it into the poems yet.

It’s not like I had some aesthetic revelation or conversion. The poems of The Currencyare merely the poems I was interested in figuring out then. And sure, there is my temperament and the accidents of what I was reading and thinking about at the time. I don’t believe there is a poet you are supposed to be, some poet-homunculus hidden in there you need to discover so it can express itself. When I think of a poem having a voice, that is not what I mean. Recently, I was reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Three Voices of Poetry,” and in it he talks about the lyric voice as being an expression of the poet’s thoughts and sentiments, an “obscure impulse,” “a demon against which he [sic] feels powerless,” which the poet must find the words for, as if she or he were performing an “exorcism of this demon.” When I read that, I couldn’t help but transpose it to exercising the demon, which feels a little more honest to how I create poems. Whenever I feel myself getting comfortable, I try to push myself toward what at the moment might seem like my opposite.

If I’m honest with myself, I’m just as likely to be watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I am to be reading Moby Dick or selections from Kenneth Burke, and I enjoy listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as well as ESPN radio and the occasional Rihanna song. As David Ignatow wrote, “I live with my contradictions / intact.” But it would be a mistake to think of these interests as contradictions. While I was working on a poem for the new book that was alluding to Virgil’s Aeneid, which I happened to be reading for no particular reason, I realized that I was really thinking about Battlestar Galactica. Both of them are trying to frame experience and to figure it out. Writing a poem about them is just another way of doing that. Thinking about both of them led me to images and reflections I found interesting. I was learning to trust the voice of the poem as a means to keep all of the disparate parts together. These new poems feel much more voice driven to me. I like when poems talk to you. I guess I’m trying to connect to that.

JB:  I love that you brought up Ignatow, a poet I don’t hear mentioned very often.  I love his plainspoken, ribald yet tender voice.  I don’t see him as an obvious influence on your work, but is he?  What is there to be said about oblique or hidden influences on poets?

PO: It was the voice of Ignatow I was drawn to, his actual voice, because I had this set of CDs called “In Their Own Voices,” which I listened to obsessively late in high school. The CDs start with that wax cylinder recording of Whitman reading from “America,” the one recently used in a Levi’s commercial, and they end with Li-Young Lee. There are a handful of Ignatow poems, mostly from his Shadowing the Ground. Those poems are contemplative and macabre. I used to repeat lines from them to myself like morbid koans. I’m sure that got in somewhere in my own poems. Perhaps in a rhythm, a habit of phrase, or temperament. There are many oblique and hidden influences, I like how you put that, and maybe this comes from the course of study poets seem to adopt, the way poets live with what they read. I could never read systematically enough to be a strong scholar, which is what I thought I might try to be when I started studying philosophy in college. I never know what I’m going to find useful, and I have no problem putting a book down and erratically picking up another one in the hopes that something will spark. My nightstand is like a library of good but unfulfilled intentions. In my reading, I’m always making connections, webs and echoes of significance, even if those are only private associations for me. Influence might also work as a kind of negative space, to continue convoluting my metaphors here. Sometimes what I’m reading turns out to be what I’m defining myself against.

JB: The poems in The Currency, many of them ekphrastic, often question the very relationship between the eye and what it sees – it is a question of how the eye sees.  And this how is in some way dependent on language.  “How can I know/ the eye without its names?” asks the speaker of “Gray Windows.”  I admire how you are not a poet content to write striking images – what’s most striking is the interrogation of what is seen.  Can you talk a bit about this attraction to the visual, and how your poetry enters and transforms that space of the seen?

PO: While voice, utterance, and allusion are driving the recent poems, The Currency is dominated by description, image, and ekphrasis. Yet those different drives feel equally meditative to me. I might call the approach in The Currency a phenomenological one. The poems often dramatize moments of recognition and misrecognition in how a person might experience the world or come to knowledge about it. Yet, a poem is still language, which is never really transparent, and in a poem even less so. My poems don’t simply report on the experience of experience; they try to make a kind of experience of themselves. Or at least that’s what I hope they do. I also believe that knowledge and the awareness of experience are strongly linguistic acts. I know the world because I describe it. I’m present to the world by calling it names. This drama of description elevated to a crisis of presence and epistemology is something I was attracted to early on in the work of poets whom I consider some of my first loves: Robert Hass, Carl Phillips, C.K. Williams, Jorie Graham, Elizabeth Bishop, and Larry Levis. In their poetry, I discover minds groping after the sense of things, and doing so by talking through it. The point is not so much the outcome but the process. The end of A.R. Ammons’s “Corsons Inlet” could serve as a motto for this: “Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision, / that I have perceived nothing completely, / that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.”

To have this kind of encounter, you could be Bishop and catch a fish, or go stare at a reservoir like Hass, or be Levis looking at that “holy” moment of horses drinking from a trough, but you could also have it by standing in front of a work of art. As much as a landscape, a painting or sculpture or installation can be a catalyst for connections and reflections, for making experience significant, which is to say full of meanings. Yet, it’s no more stable than a shifting landscape. The context of experiencing an artwork and the mood you bring to it will affect the significance. It’s this debt to context that for me makes the meditative lyric and ekphrastic poem such viable and interesting modes. They don’t have to be poems that turn away from the world, solipsistic and merely aesthetic. They can be powerful sites of engagement where you bring along your own mediating and mediated position.

JB: I’m interested in your ghazal, “Childhood Monochrome.”  I notice that the radif is simply the word “blue.”  I did not hear a strict qafia, though after I read the poem a couple times I heard a bit of patterning, in the first few couplets, with p sounds, and in the last few couplets, with words ending in a long vowel followed by an n sound.  And I love the makhta of St. Paul.  I recently asked another poet about the ghazal, and how important it was to her to show fidelity to its Arabic and Persian tradition.  How important is it to you?  Did you begin by attempting a strict adherence to the tradition?

PO: For that poem? I don’t quite recall the exact circumstances of its composition. I know it is the second oldest poem in the book. I was definitely aware of the formal requirements of the ghazal, and I did try to employ them in such a way as to make an interesting and satisfying poem, I hope. The repeating word and the signing of my name into the final couplet (the radif and the makhta) acknowledge the tradition, but why the rhyme in the second line of each couplet, the qafia, never materialized, I can’t say. I do recall wanting a form that would allow me to give a portrait of childhood, of the condition of childhood, without having to be tied to a single, central anecdote. I also remember wanting a more musical form that could accommodate ranges of tone. When tied to a single anecdote, you have to find ways to please cause and effect. If you want to bring something up, you have to show the reader how you get there, lead them across the room, so to speak. The ghazal has ways around that. It has a great capacity for letting sudden and disparate juxtapositions make sense.

Adhering to a technical purity is not something I feel is necessary when using conventional forms, and I do use them. My allegiance, though, is always to making a satisfying poem. If the technical requirements get in the way of that, I’m happy to see them go. There can be satisfaction in demonstrating your skill with technique, like the pleasure you might get in playing games, but technique is not an end in itself for poetry. I think using conventional forms requires a bit