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 of humility, humility to say you don’t have everything figured out before you start a poem, but instead let the form lead you to discoveries. Also, you need the humility of knowing that in writing a poem you are entering into something larger than your self, your sentiments and ego. Writing in a traditional form, you enter into the conversation coming out of that form. Knowing its history, then, becomes important. It helps to let you know how your poem will signify to readers, which lets you make good decisions in the creation of your poem. When writing a poem in a traditional form while jettisoning some of the technical or thematic conventions, I should be able to answer the question of what happens as a result of those omissions while still calling the poem a ghazal, or a sonnet, or an elegy, etc. If the answer is an interesting one, then I’m happy. I love poems that innovate on convention, where the poems gain a larger sense because of their participation in the form. I’m thinking of Ted Berrigan’s and Karen Volkman’s sonnets or Levis’s elegies.
JB: I notice a recurring theme of narrative in your poems. While the poems themselves are not usually narrative in an apparent way, they do circle around the question of what story is, and how we create it. In “Abstract,” the speaker imagines a biographical timeline that shifts, resists narrative; it ends with the question of “the immense/ effort it must have taken/ not to give the day its story.” The poem “Noise Like Wings” ends with the speaker “trying/ to build” a “story” after the beloved has moved away, and then seeing the hallucinatory image of photographs moving under glass. In each case, the effort to create narrative seems to lose to imagery and song. I don’t think you are intentionally saying lyrical poetry is superior to narrative poetry, but rather creating a very powerful friction between the two. Can you talk a bit about these metafictional moves in your work? Have you also written fiction?
PO: I believe that language has the power to influence how we think about our world, so how we say things is inseparable for what we are saying. This is just as true for the connotations around words as it is for how we frame our experiences with narrative structures. I guess that has been a theme in some of my poems. I tend to have a sweet tooth for poems and stories that take acknowledging their “poem-ness” and “story-ness” as part of their significance. It can be witty, funny, or a form of serious investigation. I’ve just finished rereading William Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, which is all those things. Still, I’ve become bored with poems that have anxiety about being language. I’m just not moved by the fact that a signifier is not the thing it signifies, or that a poem should be an invention. We seem to be able to make meaning just fine.
I don’t consider myself a successful writer of fiction, but I do occasionally practice at it. I get pangs of jealousy for the longer form, which can allow things their time to develop, which can get more things in. I think that’s why I have been writing epistolary poems lately. They move closer to what conventionally is considered the province of prose. I also like the way fiction can more easily accommodate the exploration of social interactions or the complexities of character. Poetry can do those things, but it’s not what we immediately think of for them. You could write a short story in lines, and in a way where the lines are doing those things with rhythm and pacing of meaning that you want out of lineation. Frost did as much in poems like “The Death of the Hired Man” and “The Witches of Coos.” I can’t think of any contemporary poet who is writing narrative poetry like that. I thought perhaps Maurice Manning might be doing something like those Frostian narratives in his The Common Man, but ultimately those poems feel more dramatic to me than narrative. These generic distinctions aren’t important to me beyond simply having something interesting occur when asking the questions: “How do I read this piece of writing differently because it calls itself a poem? Or a short story? Or an essay?” Just the other day, I was reading in The New Yorker a personal essay by Salman Rushdie that uses the third person point of view, a choice that has the particular significance it does only because the piece is memoir. In fact, the invitation to immediately make meaning out of the choice of point of view really only seems relevant because of the genre it claims.
There seems to be a lot of talk right now about narrative poetry and lyric poetry, but I tend to get confused when I use those terms. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Earlier I mentioned Eliot’s “The Three Voices of Poetry,” and what he considers lyric poetry in that lecture is much narrower than what we are compelled to call lyric. I’m also not convinced what we call narrative poetry would be recognized as such before the latter part of the twentieth century. The term “narrative” often gets used simply to mean an identifiable speaker in a determinate setting, particularly in poems that take a more representational approach towards the world they describe and that are perhaps anecdotal. Also, I think the term “narrative” has the tendency to be used wrongly in place of “boring.” If a poem is boring, that is not because it exhibits narrative tendencies. I think the term “narrative” has become a shortcut for thinking, a way to be dismissive without having to articulate and defend aesthetic principles that explain the choice to banish narrative. Have you seen Demolition Man? Too often I hear poets deploy the adjective “narrative” in the way Rob Schneider’s character says of Sylvester Stallone’s, “He doesn’t know how to use the three seashells!” Again, by narrative, this means an identifiable speaker in a determinate setting with an anecdotal and representational approach to the description. Some of the confusion in terminology can be traced to here, I think, because what I’ve been describing is often called the “lyric-I” or the “self” in poetry. Saying that one subverts or eschews the “lyric-I” or self in poetry amounts to pretty much saying one is against narrative in most instances. I’m waiting for a more useful terminology and a more useful critique of narrative. Lately, I’ve been thinking of poetry as a series of drives, which are not mutually exclusive but show up to differing degrees in poems. I’ve labeled the drives as voice, rhetoric, and story, which manifest as personality, structure, and narrative detail. Yet, a taxonomy seems to be most useful for the person inventing it. I’m not being reactionary; I just don’t find that the old complaints against narrative and the self in poetry really articulate the needs of our time. The theater’s changed.
JB: Sure, taxonomies are probably most useful to their inventors, but it’s still pretty interesting to see how others comprehend and categorize what they love. I like your skepticism toward the labels of “lyric” and “narrative,” and I think many if not most writers share it. Maurice Manning is a great example of someone, as you observed, who is difficult to describe in conventional terms. I too tend to think of his poems as dramatic – I guess the dramatic monologue would be the most obvious tradition to locate him within. But he’s so slippery, and unpredictable. Have you heard him read his work? He’s an incredible reader, and the way he reads adds to my experience of the poems on the page. And he’s funny! At one of his readings I saw Brooks Haxton fall off his chair laughing.
PO: Yes, definitely, the dramatic monologue does seem right. Like the epistolary mode, the dramatic monologue offers a useful way to think about bringing back narrative elements or story in poems, and how to employ those elements in engaging ways. I have heard Manning read a couple of times. It’s always been a pleasure. There is so much personality in those poems.
JB: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “The Birds,” which is part of a triptych titled, “The Birds.” I was really excited to see you pull off a very kick-ass Hitchcock poem. The poem ends with the image of Tippi Hedren being attacked by birds, and the interesting fact that Hitchcock has tied them to her with string: “When she moved, they moved. So even if she were innocent,// they’d still come.” Amazing. I have seen that movie a bunch of times, and your poem made me see that scene in a new and horrifying light. There was a panel on the influence of Hitchcock on poetry at AWP a few years ago. If you had been on that panel, what might you have said?
PO: I wish I could have heard the panel. Myself, I couldn’t claim to know much about Hitchcock movies, but I’ve had some encounters with them that have made great impressions on me. Generally, though, I’m envious of how a movie can give you all the complexity of story by just showing you a scene, how a movie can give you this composition, this simultaneity that delivers all the depth of a world, a way of life, so quickly. In a poem, an image gestures towards that, but there are limits to the world an image can evoke. I think what I’m talking about are those moments in a movie where you feel like the world the movie is presenting to you is expanded or deepened. That’s a kind of happening in a movie, part of the story, even if it might not fit into conventional notions of narrative, of cause and effect moving some conflict forward. There is a small moment in Ming-liang Tsai’s What Time Is It There? where the lonely protagonist, a young street vendor in Taipei, demonstrates the quality of the watches he’s selling by clanging one against the metal railing of a bridge. It really resonates for me as a scene that throws into relief those conditions that make a person possible. What more do we need of conflict? With Hitchcock’s The Birds, I’m also envious of just how visceral the emotional experience created by a movie can be. With those birds, Hitchcock is able to tap into some primordial fear, one elevated to myth. I am genuinely terrified by that movie. I have the same reaction to certain scenes in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. andLost Highway. I’m not sure how often I have been affected like that by a poem. I’ve definitely been made to feel spontaneously a profound sense of existential dread, such as the weight I get in my stomach when I arrive at the end of Berryman’s “Dream Song 28,” “If I had to do the whole thing over again / I wouldn’t.” But I’m not sure I’ve ever been actually scared by a poem.
JB: Your title poem, “The Currency,” is set in Prague in the early 21st century, when its citizens want to believe their post-revolutionary future has arrived, if not as utopia then at least a place where couples can kiss in public, and old men in their green work uniforms aren’t “afraid/ to be seen eating ice cream.” The poem’s final image is striking: the clay pipes sold by a girl seem to come to life, “a small grace/ so amazed it had currency at all.” Tell us about this “currency,” and why this poem, a sad love poem in a foreign land, is your title poem?
PO: I think of the speaker of that poem as needing to see the citizens of Prague as acting with philosophical and historical significance, more so than perhaps they need it. That’s part of his transaction, his conversion of their lives into meaning for his own. I was also trying to demystify that need. Exchanges, conversions, and transformations are central to the book; they include turning perception into a provisional knowledge, sensory details into figures of speech, experience into significant story, and actions into their moral content. What is a symbol or narrative structure but a kind of coin? A tender for meaning provided? But of course, what you get for it is always in flux, and the tender itself has its own material reality and consequences. The poems in The Currency are constantly cycling through transformations. Travel is just another iteration of those transactions, and travel has a way of making them appear more vividly. While Prague is not the subject of the book, it did provide me with some significant experiences to draw from, and it provides the book with a physical place to house the meeting of the personal and the historical, the self and the world. Also, I was there in the first year of the new millennium, so I was able to use that as another type of conversion. I see the passing of my Cold War youth into the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as forming a palimpsest over that larger timeline. The new poems I’ve been writing have been thoroughly on this side of the millennial divide, embedded inextricably in those wars. The title The Currency is a bit ironic, too. The speakers are constantly trying to stay current, whether it is just being present to their perceptions or taking responsibility for the conditions making their social, cultural, and philosophical positions possible.
JB: Thank you for the conversation, Paul. And best wishes for the next book.