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An Interview with Curtis Bauer 

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos 

Justin Bigos: The poems in your new collection, The Real Cause for Your Absence(C&R Press, 2013), create forms for suspense, suddenness, danger. The poems often give the immediate sense (to paraphrase Frost) that something is not exactly right—and now the speaker must open his eyes fully, and respond. I wonder if we can begin by discussing this delicious disorientation you create: in each poem the sense that “[y]ou are suddenly in a life.”

Curtis Bauer: I’m glad that you find it delicious. I am in a state of disorientation often, so it’s a bit like the daily bread . . . I wouldn’t call it delicious, but part of life, that sustenance you need to survive but don’t really think about. I find that I’m often surprised by what is going on around me, or to be more precise . . . what I think is going on or being said. I’ve always been that way, understanding things that people aren’t saying, or seeing something odd in how someone is dressed, but it’s just how the light is falling on them. Even when I was a kid growing up on a farm in Iowa–I asked a lot of questions because I didn’t want to get in trouble, but I seemed to get in trouble anyway–and now as I maneuver between two languages and different cultures, I think I’m even more disoriented. I suppose it’s some kind of dyslexia . . . But to respond to your question more directly, that sudden shifting to which you refer comes out of seeing the literal and figurative in the world. We make associations all the time, and from each association we have others, and on and on. I think many of my poems are preoccupied with that kind of association, and the coming back to the literal, although the literal isn’t always the most interesting.

JB: I do see that associative quality very much in your work, and I’m interested in this idea of “coming back to the literal.” Gerald Stern has called you “a sane realist with a vivid imagination.” I love how he captures the tension you’ve described–between the literal and the figurative–but I suppose I wonder if in some way you privilege or feel a kind of loyalty to the “real” world. And I wonder if perhaps the answer has something to do with the darker, more political notes that emerge later in The Real Cause for Your Absence. Huge question, I know.

CB: This idea of the “real” world is a bit foggy. I won’t get into a discussion of what is real or not, but that questions is something that concerns me. I think I take my understanding of “real” from my father, who is a painter. Some call him a realist, but he prefers the term “representational,” which I think is a more precise illustration of what we do as writers, what I attempt to do as a poet: represent the world I see and understand. The title of the book, for example, demonstrates for me the difficulty of identifying or pinning down one thing, but it represents questions and concerns that surround a relationship, both internal and external. Regarding my preoccupation with some of those darker social and political ideas you mention… we have to start somewhere that is familiar with all of us, or that can be. And that’s what the “real” or “literal” is, a kind of common ground that allows us to start a conversation. The joy for me, and one of the things that interests me the most in poetry, is how that conversation can lead to other conversations that I couldn’t have imagined when I started.

JB: You mention painting and representation. I wonder if we can talk a bit about whatSebastian Matthews, in regards to his own work, has called “the ekphrastic impulse.” You have more than a few poems titled “drawings,” “still lives,” “sketches,” etc., and also a poem titled, “While Reading I Think About Drawing.” I sense almost a competition between the literary and the visual arts in your poems. One thing the ekphrastic poem allows you to do is signal a purely visual space, while immediately disrupting it byanimating the poem.  For example, the poem “To a Woman Standing in a Doorway” creates a purposefully static image in its title, and then the poem begins, “Rush out with me to where the lawns are wide,” which moves the poem into the urgent, the happening-right-now, whose frame–at least in the imagination–is widened well beyond a doorway.

CB: I like the idea of animating a poem. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. I am a visual thinker; I see objects, movement, even words on a page sometimes, so for me to include “sketch,” “drawing,” or “still lives” in a poem seems like a natural thing to do, and perhaps it is less meaningful than it appears. At the same time, however, “sketch” and “drawing” have for me the connotation of something quick, something one can do without thinking much, as a kind of exercise that helps you understand a subject or process. I don’t mean to say that I wrote those poems quickly, but there is a certain approach to composition I’m trying to achieve. I spend a lot of time looking at drawings and paintings of artists like Alberto Giacometti, Eduardo Chillida, and Giorgio Morandi, to name only a few; I’m always surprised by how easy they make the process look, how unimportant drawing seems to be for the artist . . . they’ve got sketchbook after sketchbook filled with them