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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 . . . in fact I have a Giacometti book that reproduces drawings on napkins, theater programs, and newspapers he did while waiting in coffee shops and bars. Behind that act is something extraordinarily important–why else would they spend so much time doing it?–and I think it has to do with practice: the practice of looking at something and attempting to represent its essence; the practice of craft. So really, there’s no competition between the literary and visual, but a fusion of the two . . . or a walking hand in hand with one and the other.

You mention the poem, “To A Woman Standing in a Doorway,” and I think that’s a fine example of how a still life can lead to other ideas and images. This poem and many of the others are really about how I look, about how I learn to see beyond the literal and consider textures and tones, light and shadows, which is very much the way a painter or visual artist looks, I guess. At the same time, I’m giving myself an opening to experiment, to see where the piece goes without the self-imposed restrictions of say, “this is going to be a poem; I’m going to publish this eventually.” I guess what I’m getting at is that I feel a certain sense of relief and informality with the word “sketch” and that allows me to explore ideas I might not have explored to begin with. I can follow a line I put down and continue to make the sketch bigger, as if expanding the frame of the picture.

JB: There is definitely a really refreshing informality in your work, even at the level of the line—but of course this informality is a kind of form. In your recent interview with 32 Poems, Emilia Phillips gave a wonderful close-reading of your use of line, especially enjambment, in “Looking at 12 White Things,” showing how each line enacted what she called a “dynamism of emotion, space, and experience.” I also notice this dynamism in your length of line and stanza. For example, in your poem “Colony Collapse Disorder,” these lines:

Like a horse

ridden so hard for home it gets you there but its wind is broken, which means
its breath can’t fill its lungs, even walking to the water tank exhausts it;

it’s alive,

but there is no beauty there
but the beauty of the dying.

The poem alternates between the monostich, couplet, and tercet, and it is the monostiches that are the very short lines in the poem. If you compose poems according to a sonic kind of “sketching,” what it is that drives a very short, self-contained monostich versus, say, a long-lined, enjambed couplet or tercet? And how many drafts does it typically take you to find out?

CB: Let me start with the number of drafts. I wonder if there is a poet who knows how many drafts it takes to discover the form of a poem. I suppose there are many, but it makes me think of that lollipop commercial with the owl . . . “how many licks does it take . . ? One, two, three, crunch!”

It’s hard for me to know, to be honest. I suppose it depends on the poem, what I understand it to be about. Sometimes I think I know and then I realize I was mistaken and the poem turns in a different direction. In one of the poems in The Real Cause For Your Absence, I discovered the blank verse lines when I was revising it for the final manuscript submission.

“Colony Collapse Disorder” came about fairly quickly, in maybe ten drafts. And what you call the “sonic sketching”—I love this idea and I will steal it from you—is a consequence of the quickly turned ideas. This poem fixes its attention on at least three different subjects—bees, the neighbors, the speaker’s father—and it is a result of my preoccupation with the interconnectedness of things, which means another subject in the poem is relationships: our relationship with nature, with the people in our community, with our loved ones, even though they might be far away. This poem fuses these subjects together; the collage of these different subjects into lines of diverse lengths causes both a physical and intellectual response for me . . . and I hope for the reader. I want the varying line and stanza lengths to demonstrate how quickly our minds can move from one idea to another; how I look for links or threads that are common between seemingly uncommon subjects. It’s jarring and surprising, but greatly rewarding.

I don’t necessarily compose a poem outright thinking of sounds; as I said before, I am attracted to images . . . but the sonic quality grows out of the refinement of the line as I discover where the poem is going. That sonic sketching helps give me a clearer, fuller representation of what the poem is about. How many drafts does it take? Four? Twelve? Thirty-five? Crunch!

JB: Let’s turn our discussion toward translation. You translate into English from the Spanish, including the poetry of José de María Romero Barea, Juan Antonio González Iglesias, and Luis Muñoz. On the flip side, you have had your own poems translated into Spanish, by Romero Barea and Diãna Vigule, in the volume Spanish Sketchbook(Ediciones en Huida, 2012). Please forgive my semi-literacy in Spanish, but I find some interesting translations in Spanish Sketchbook. Here is an example, the final lines from the opening poem, “Three Spain Sketches”:

or the people on the platform
have said goodbye and started to walk away.

is translated into . . .

o es la multitud
que ha dicho adios y vuelve a casa.

I’m struck by the difference between “people” and a multitude, a crowd; and also by the difference between walking away and returning home. These seem like huge differences! So, I have a few questions here. Can you talk about the experience of seeing your words translated so creatively into another language? Were you involved collaboratively? And on the other side of it: how do you balance—or do you?—the obligation to remain loyal to words (and syntax and lines and music) in another language, with the desire to create something your own, in your native tongue? (The conflict just reared its head when, above, I wasn’t sure whether to type “translated as,” or “translated into