“I’ll Remind You That All Books Are Made Out of Light: An Interview with Martin Rock

Interview conducted by Karl Zuehlke 

Karl Zuehlke (KZ): Dear Martin, there is something I cannot quite quantify about how you put words together into such solid lines. I don’t know that I want to know. Your lines and sentences justify themselves somehow in my mind; as a reader I love the precise cuts through the flesh and fabric and time and being. Would you please talk about how your voice evolved, how it solidified into Dear Mark?

Martin Rock (MR): I feel like each poem dictates its own voice, and as a poet I hope to be always evolving rather than evolved. But I’m glad you think of “flesh and fabric and time and being.” A more direct way to answer your question might be to give a list of poets who have influenced me, but I know I’ll inevitably leave too many out. I try to read across schools and time-periods and cultures. I don’t pretend that reading a work in translation is equivalent to reading the original, but the collaboration between translator and poet can provide invaluable whispers, and helps me break away from familiar tropes. And of course the ‘real world’ also exerts its influence. I like Stevens’s idea that “the poet is the priest of the invisible” & I think the invisible carries its own voice.

KZ: The act of translating is an interesting model. As I read Dear Mark, it is all thriller and no filler, and Rothko’s paintings are settings, symbolic environments your imagination populates or explores, plays with and expands. At the same time, though, I think the paintings become surfaces between the reader and the poems, yourself and Rothko. In “Serigraph, Acrylic on Paper, 1968″ you write:

“There are two of us in the room.

Or there is one

& we are cut in half

by the bending of light

in gallons of paint.”

Standing in front of a painting divides the viewer from the artist by a stretch of canvas, the nails holding the canvas to the frame, and time. The painter was there, and there are traces of that presence in the paint. Similarly perhaps, we could view these poems as a record of that interaction? There is a record of Martin Rock in the poems, that we can find in the words?

MR: That’s an interesting thing to think about — the conversation that happens between artist and viewer. You call the paintings “symbolic environments” but I try to be mindful of their physical nature when I’m in front of a canvas. To look at brushstrokes up close and see the materiality of paint or the texture of the canvas beneath it evokes the artist’s physical presence as well, absent only by time. In the same way I’ve convinced myself of the presence of ghosts in shadow, I’ve felt the artist standing behind me when looking at a painting. I imagine these poems contain something of me in the same way a canvas contains its artist, but I don’t think they’re complete until they’re read and assimilated. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot suggests that a new work of art modifies all the “existing monuments” that came before it. I hope these poems enter into the kind of genuine communion of which Eliot speaks.

The poem you’ve quoted here was the first poem of the project. In 2010 my friend Brian Trimboli put an image of “Serigraph, Acrylic on Paper, 1968” on the TV we’d set up as a computer monitor. Though I don’t often smoke pot, that night I had. I remember feeling as though I was reeling in psychic matter from another dimension and trapping it, ghostbuster-style, in my poem. It upsets me that our culture allows the acknowledged use of psychoactive substances to deny verity to a perceived experience. But it’s important that I mention I came to this project while in an altered state, and that Rothko’s work has a quality that returns me to that state without the need to alter my brain chemistry exogenously.

I think Rothko is one of Longfellow’s Promethean bards who travel outside the realm of typical human experience and bring back a piece of that world for the rest of us; this is one reason his paintings are sometimes referred to as portals or doorways. The chapbook was written with this kind of psychonautic questing in mind. If Rothko has mined some spiritual quarry in the creation of his art, my work is an attempt to seek out those echoes and filter them through the lens of another consciousness (my own) and another medium (poetry).

KZ: You might have created an echo chamber of your very own. Also, I am fascinated that Dear Mark developed as an aftereffect of a collaboration between yourself and Brian, whereas your first chapbook Fish, You Bird was a more