The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show: Beth Bachmann
Beth Bachmann grew up just outside Philadelphia, the daughter of a shoe-shiner and locker room attendant. She is the author of Temper, a collection of poems about the murder of her sister, which won the AWP Donald Hall Prize and Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Each fall, she serves as Writer-in-Residence in Vanderbilt’s MFA program and spends the rest of the year writing poems, often in a hoodie, and sometimes in a hoodie with her feet in a swimming pool. She met her husband hitchhiking at the age of nineteen and they now live in Nashville, one street away from Dolly Parton and across the road from Randall Jarrell’s grandmother’s place. For this year’s piano recital, she is playing Annie’s “Tomorrow.”
Beth’s second book of poems, Do Not Rise, was selected by poet Elizabeth Willis for the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. It was published this month from the University of Pittsburgh Press.
The Rumpus: Beth Bachmann is not only one of the most interesting poets of her generation, she’s also a good friend to many of us on this program. Her latest book, titled Do Not Rise, just came out as part of the Pitt Poetry Series. Please welcome, for the first time to our studio, one of America’s sparkliest poets, Ms. Beth Bachmann!
Wow… we’ve looked forward to having you here. Thanks for joining us.
Beth Bachmann: Hi Dave. Thanks for having me. I’m so happy to be here.
Rumpus: Did you have trouble finding the stage? Sometimes people get lost back there. Poor Oliver de la Paz wandered near some cages we’d had set up for stupid pet tricks. That was hairy.
Bachmann: It’s a long hall. Follow the twinkly lights.
Rumpus: Are you comfortable? The Rumpus network is too cheap to buy us a new couch. We grabbed this futon off the curb.
Bachmann: It’s great. Not too dog-bit. Cozy.
Rumpus: Well, if it feels lumpy over there, blame our executive producer.
So the new book is out! For years I’ve been waiting for it. Can we get a shot of the cover?
Tell us what we’re looking at here. Are these wooden masks of some kind?
Bachmann: Aren’t they great? They are 19th century bog shoes. They were nailed to the feet of workhorses to keep them from sinking into the mud while working in or crossing rivers. But they read as faces, don’t they? I see a male and female face.
Rumpus: Me too. I’ve never seen anything like them before. They’re spooky. Is this an image you selected for the cover?
Bachmann: Yes. I have a guy, a dealer of horseshoes and carnival paraphernalia. If you look closely at my author photo, you can see a rusty gorilla in the back. It’s an old carnival target. I love that somewhere in the world someone saw these things and hoped they could find someone who liked them too. I love the faces. They are full of animus.
Rumpus: They startle me to a new kind of awareness, and they match the tone of the poems in the book. Can we talk about one of those poems?
Bachmann: Yes, of course.
Rumpus: What about “garden, and gun”? I think you said it’s one of the central poems. The audience can link to it here. First thing most of us see is that you’re riffing off the magazine. Are you a subscriber? Garden and Gun: Soul of the South, I believe it’s actually called.
Bachmann: No. But I live in Tennessee. It’s everywhere. Garden & Gun is, as far as I can tell, a Southern lifestyle magazine for the woman who likes to both garden and gun.
Rumpus: Sounds like my kind of woman.
Bachmann: Last April the Tennessee Senate voted for open gun carry without a permit so many public doorways in Nashville—at least the ones I pass through—are posted with “No gun” signs next to the “No dogs allowed.” And it’s legal to carry in parks, too, so my “garden, and gun” poem picks up there and echoes Henry Reed’s famous war poem, “Naming of Parts,” where the rifle instruction is set against the blossoming spring landscape. Do you remember that poem? If you don’t know the poem, but have seen James Franco in Spring Breakers, just think “easin’ the spring, y’all.” Same thing. Guns plus youth in spring.
Rumpus: I remember the Reed poem, yes. It’s remarkable. A little more so than Spring Breakers.
When you say the poem “picks up” after “Naming of Parts,” what does that mean, exactly?
Bachmann: Franco is wild in Spring Breakers! But, to your question, many of the poems in the book take place in a landscape altered by trauma, so I guess when I said picks up “after,” I was putting the “P” in PTSD.
Rumpus: Boy, I sure wish I could jam letters into acronyms like you do.
The address in this poem interests me… the confident gesture opening the poem: “You be the garden.” A number of your poems are designed around a quiet, intense kind of dialogue between an “I” and “you.” I’m interested in that “you.” Do you have a particular person in mind here, or do you imagine that “you” as a reader, any reader?
Bachmann: Ah, yes, the you. Have you read Adrienne Rich’s essay on Dickinson in recent memory?
Rumpus: You mean “Vesuvius at Home”? Behold this magic.
Bachmann: I love the way Rich talks about Dickinson’s address to her master as a male muse or male daemon, the source of her creative power coded in male terms. The you is a male figure who is variously muse, daemon, soldier, army buddy, companion in sorrow.
Rumpus: I like how you describe this “you”! The fact that he’s male and embodies many masculine forms charms me. It suggests the sort of elusive moves—and moods—in this book. Everyone knows we all contain multitudes anyway, so it makes sense that this book’s “you” isn’t static. We readers always expect it to be static. But we shouldn’t.
Bachmann: Yeah, and I don’t mean to imply all soldiers are men or all men are soldiers. But to say instead that I’m working with those multitudinal aspects of self—I/you/who?— and pressurizing power relationships historically gendered as X/Y. There’s a poem in the book called “dominance” where I hammer the moon, that old female symbol, into a horseshoe, so there’s a lot of flexing going on in all directions.
Rumpus: Can you explain what your writing process looks like or feels like now that the book is safely out in the world? Better yet, can you share a YouTube video that serves as a metaphor for your process?
Bachmann: Can you ask with flowers?
Rumpus: I’m done out of daisies. Please? Pretty please?
Bachmann: I love this video by the South African group Die Antwoord.
Rumpus: I’ve never heard of them. That must mean they’re truly hip. Everyone ready for this? Let’s watch the clip.
What the…? I don’t think I’ve ever seen our audience go quiet. Can you identify these two characters for us? Is the coy woman, Yolandi, you? Maybe that chain-link dude is your muse…
Bachmann: Yes, I am Yolandi.
Bachman: And I love how she asks about his job and weighs the perk of cake and tea—it’s a courtship. On one side of the chain link fence, the poet; on the other side, the muse/poem/reader. The video connects to the piece Nick Flynn and I just did for The American Poetry Review on liminal poetics—the video’s all threshold.
Rumpus: Explain the threshold.
Bachmann: I love the image of the chain link fence because part of the fence is the holes in the fence for whispering and touch and climbing. I love, too, that the fence seems endless, like there’s something on the other side we can only get but so close to, only a finger or two through. That, to me, is where the poems are.
Rumpus: I like the dollar sign on that guy’s hat. He’s like Johnny Manziel in two years—cut from the NFL and all washed up, saying, “My granny will make us some tea and cake.”
That said, I’m not sure how to describe the discomfort I feel while watching this video. Not one experience in my whole life has prepared me for it. Obviously something’s wrong with me.
Bachmann: Ha! Speaking of thresholds, I am your gateway drug.
Rumpus: So how do you hover at that threshold? What happens that alchemizes or galvanizes a poem? Do your poems come in one rush, fairly finished?
Bachmann: Yes, I like that Yolandi’s weighing what’s worth the time. I generally don’t revise more than a word or two—it’s all written in the moment of composition, which may be hours, and either has an energy to it that makes a poem stick, or I abandon it. Maybe an image I’ve found in an abandoned poem will come up again elsewhere but it’s not because I’ve intentionally gone back to mine it, but because its found a new home—or, to run with video metaphor, a better lover, elsewhere.
Rumpus: So it either happens or doesn’t. Yolandi and the chain-link muse either head back to granny’s or don’t. Is that about right?
Bachmann: The metaphor falls apart a bit there because you have to go to granny’s to find out.
Rumpus: You’re the only poet I know who can make tea at granny’s house sound sexy.
Bachmann: It’s a gift. I get it from Dolly Parton.
Rumpus: Can I ask about another aspect of “garden, and gun” before we move on to discuss your mysterious private life?
Bachmann: Ask away.
Rumpus: Okay then. One structural aspect of “garden, and gun” and others from this book is that you embed a lot of spaces in the lines. That first line, for example, with tabs or spaces between “garden” and “I,” “leave” and “my boots,” and “walk” and “barefoot.” You did a little of this in Temper but you commit to it more in the new book. What’s going on there formally?
Bachmann: Each poem is written chronologically, which is to say the order of the words on the page as you read them is the order in which I wrote them: each word is dependent on the word that precedes it and collectively so, as constellations…or chain-links. The imagery in these poems moves really fast, so I felt like I needed the pause for the reader to see one thing transform into the other. Also, I think the way these poems arose to me was slower, so it speaks to the process.
Rumpus: Does that structural element amplify or modify the difficult subject matter you’re wrestling with? In this case, PTSD?
Bachmann: You ask the best questions!
Rumpus: No kidding. Can you believe The Rumpus pays me squat for this gig? I need a new agent.
Bachmann: Marina Tsvetaeva writes of the lyric poem, “The wave always returns, and always returns as a different wave,” and I think the lyric poem is the perfect form for writing about post-traumatic stress. In one way the address of the title, Do Not Rise, is commanding the traumatic memories to stand down, but in full knowledge of the inevitable pushback. So much of the book is strategies of containment, or silences—paired with this unstoppable bewild-ment. And in some ways a rapture surrendering to the wave.
Rumpus: You’re on to my line of questioning. I was just about to ask you about lyric poetry. You’re a master of that mode, and you’ve revealed a lot about its demands on you and also on the reader. Those pauses are so important to my experience reading your poems. They mean, and can mean, so many different things. At times they’re peaceful pauses that allow us to absorb a surprising image or dense lyric expression. At other times they’re frightening silences, given the subject of PTSD.
Bachmann: Yes, I am a lyric poet. And I am a living lyric I. I want to link it to trauma a little more. I’ve heard Nick Flynn talk about this—in the context of his intersections with Abu Ghraib detainees—about how speech changes after trauma, that to speak about trauma is to re-enter the event and when you’re there, linearity fails. Though maybe linearity is the wrong word here—I can’t remember the word Nick uses—because linearity makes me think of the poem and all that white space, which is a pause but sometimes more than a pause. It can be a stop, a refusal, a turning away, or transition into another mode of describing.
Rumpus: I so wish I could write that way, to trust the lyric impulse. Of course, you can get away with it when you write such arresting images: “Red is always hunger; yellow, possession, but blue is nothing if not contrast.” “Monarchs taste milky like the ditch they feed in.” I mean, come on, it’s just not fair. You’re making poetasters of the rest of us.
Bachmann: Oh, just rifle through my abandoned stack of granny’s bad teas and ices!
Rumpus: Okay, let’s get to the rumor mill. Are you ready to deny or confirm some stories about your private life? I mean, you’ve appeared on the cover of every poetry tabloid in the land.
Bachmann: I’m tell-all-memoir-spoiler-ready. Go.
Rumpus: We all know you live in Nashville. Is it true that you and Dolly walk your dogs together every morning?
Bachmann: She has a place a block away, but it’s a gated compound. I’m so sad I’ve never seen her. Though I recently dyed my hair Dolly Parton by-way-of Yolandi blonde.
Rumpus: Confirm or deny: You’ve seen every single episode of Celebrity Rehab, and Sex Rehab, with Dr. Drew.
Bachmann: Yes, every episode. And here’s the kicker: I first learned about my PTSD watching female wrestler, Chyna Doll, learn about hers. Chyna says something like, “Everything reminds me…,” and Dr. Drew says, “That’s PTSD,” and Chyna and I have the same look of, “Oh, that’s a thing there’s a name for?” True story!
Rumpus: I was just going to ask about the intersection between the show and your poems. You’re such a candid guest. Maybe this is a stupid question, but was the process of writing the poems for Do Not Rise therapeutic at all?
Bachmann: I don’t know. I’ve never been to therapy, but I’ve seen it on TV.
Rumpus: Let’s nibble on more delectable secrets then. Here’s another question about your private life. Confirm or deny: You’re a professional hockey fanatic.
Rumpus: I once thought I saw you behind the glass at a Nashville Predators game. No?
Bachmann: Hockey masks are scary and ice is cold.
Rumpus: Guess it must have been Mary Ruefle. Okay, here’s another. I heard a rumor once, in a very loud bar at a very loud and busy writing conference, that you have an unhealthy obsession with Abraham Lincoln.
Bachmann: Yes! I heart Abe. Abraham Lincoln is the original lumbersexual! I just read this article in the Atlantic yesterday linking lumbersexuals to neurasthenia, which they describe as a male hysteria but interestingly is also another of the many names for PTSD. Among those names, my favorite is “nostalgia.” The Atlantic says, “The lumberjack, as we know him, only came onto the scene as a symbol of American manhood a little over a century ago, at a moment when American men were in desperate need of a hero.” The idea is the lumberjack emerges historically as a symbol of hyper-masculinity in a moment of crisis. So he’s like the soldier I address in Do Not Rise: axe-wielding, but vulnerable as a cowboy poet underneath. And it gets back to this idea of re-gendering the muse as male: soldier, lumberjack, Brawny paper towel guy.
Rumpus: Now there’s a meaningful male icon. I aspire to be as ripped and flannelled as the Brawny paper towel guy.
Bachmann: Is Brawny’s slogan really “tough to the core”? Or could we use that as a blurb for my book: “Tough to the core”? My husband says he’s just lumber-curious.
Rumpus: TMI… TMI!
Rumpus: Speaking of strange romances, let’s get back to your tabloid life. You’ve been romantically linked to several celebrities. Fact or fiction: Nick Cave?
Bachmann: Fact: Nick Cave and I both read Pound’s Cantos “for the music.” Fact: Nick Cave has titled a song, “We Real Cool,” after my all-time favorite life-changing poem by my first-favorite poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. Dear Nick, please sing my poems!
Rumpus: We’ll get to your romance with Ezra Pound in a minute. Fact or fiction: Circa 2002, you and Ol’ Dirty Bastard were spied canoodling in Central Park.
Bachmann: Who do you think “Good Morning Heartache” is about?
Rumpus: Wow. You’re frothing up this audience. One more. Confirm or deny: You and old Shotgun Willie himself, Willie Nelson.
Bachmann: Is there honestly any other reason to move to Nashville? In the words of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”: “Them that don’t know him won’t like him and them that do,/Sometimes won’t know how to take him.”
Rumpus: TMZ, People magazine, Entertainment Tonight… that’s some weak sauce compared to what we’re serving here at Rumpus Late Nite.
Bachmann: Seriously—you guys rock!
Rumpus: Now back to Ezra Pound, international man of mystery. You told me in the green room that you’d read only one book last year, The Cantos. What was that like?
Bachmann: I think it is impossible to read The Cantos without being estranged—unless you are fluent in all the languages and have read all the source texts—if so, call me, cowboy. So what you get instead is pure wave. I read it for the music and the image, which I think is akin to the way I listen to the symphony or look at visual art, as an outsider. I read The Cantos for the solace in displacement. I read it in summer, then that fall I wrote my first long poem “wall,” which is really all about borders, houses, estrangements, safe-holds, coexistences…
Rumpus: How elegantly put. I’ve never heard anyone talk about traveling through The Cantos with such peaceful acceptance and maybe even love. Usually we gripe about wrestling with that work. “Solace in displacement” is really a beautiful and generous thing to say about anyone’s art.
Bachmann: It’s like Stevens says, “A poem need not have a meaning and like most things in nature does not have.” Pretty flowers. Frankenstein’s monster. Solace in displacement. Word.
Rumpus: So you claim Pound as an influence, but his influence bears fruit in your next book, Cease, right?
Bachmann: Yup. “wall,” is out now in the January issue of American Poetry Review, alongside some of the unpunctuated prose pieces. I’m excited about those.
Rumpus: Well good luck with Do Not Rise, and the next one too. If Amazon doesn’t devour the entire publishing industry before then, we’ll have you back on the show when Cease hits shelves.
Bachmann: I’d love to. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’ll beware of the dog on the way out.
Rumpus: Slow down, girl. We’re not excusing you from a ridiculous obstructions assignment. You think you can handle my serve?
Bachmann: Channeling Yolandi on the mic.
Rumpus: All right, sister. Here’s a little new year’s inspiration for you, especially designed for you, Yolandi, and your Johnny Manziel-esque muse.
If anyone in the audience wants to give this a try, post your draft in the comments box down below. We’ll send a copy of Beth’s book to the first person who takes up the challenge.
Your Three Obstructions:
- Write an epistolary poem to Marina Tsvetaeva or Gertrude Stein.
- The poem must make at least one obvious reference to Nashville.
- Four quatrains, with at least one end rhyme pair in each quatrain. Slant rhymes allowed.
Rumpus: What do you think of those?
Bachmann: Game on.
dear my dear state your name for the purposes of identification/ state your state bird mockingbird state the nature of your relationship/ is unnatural state your bird can sing its own song the song of other birds/ the sound of insect & mechanical noise songbird// I sing of thee Tennessee bird state/ your flower your iris sucks/ the water pure your iris your iris/ chokes the water floods fucks// the flow state your state poem written by a prisoner of war/in solitary confinement dear God/ oh how much I long to see/ my native land of Tennessee// state your state horse abuse for the Big Lick/ the way the horses kick/ for ribbon is manmade dear my dear yeehaw/ what does not break you makes you a man//
Rumpus: What the eff? You’re already finished?
Bachmann: In the words of my inner-child Yolandi: “Yipee kaiyay muddafucka! I’m a big deal!” What can I say? You inspire me!
Rumpus: That’s a Rumpus Late Nite speed record. Maybe I should give you a tougher assignment, like 5 obstructions.
Bachmann: I might break! Thanks for lighting a path for me to use “yeehaw”!
Rumpus: I might just kick Johnny Manziel off the fence. What was the hardest part of the assignment? Considering your speed, I’m guessing there wasn’t one.
Bachmann: At first I thought there was no way I could incorporate Nashville. But “yeehaw” is a mental rhyme for Nashville’s claim-to-fame Hee Haw, so that counts, right? Or more likely, outside town, “yeehaw” and “Hee Haw” are the same thing.
Rumpus: I’m glad at least one of the rules freaked you out—if only for a second. Do you think this piece has any potential?
Bachmann: Yeehaw! Which they say has its root in the word “wolf.” Garden and Gun. Tennessee: here we go again. “The wave always returns.”
Rumpus: You know what I like in this piece? All the dense rhyming and syncopated sounds. And the exercise squeezed out the spatial pauses we talked about earlier.
Bachmann: Yeah, the end words in the first “quatrain”—identification/relationship/birds/songbird—are a nod to the way Stein moves in Tender Buttons: “All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling.” Oh man, speaking of PTSD and repetition, “a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Rumpus: Unique interpretation!
Bachmann: My very newest poems are written in an ecstatic mode, so “dear G.” is both “dear Gertrude” and “dear God,” or as they write it here in the South, G_d. I’m big into Stein’s present immediacy and what’s more urgent than prayer-wail? Prayer, too, as a form, is repetitive.
Rumpus: That it is.
Bachmann: Can I get an “amen”?
Visit Beth Bachmann’s website and follow her on Twitter.
Stay tuned for Episode #9 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Ross Gay.