An Answer Should Lead to Another Question: Talking with Rae Armantrout
Rae Armantrout is a poet walking the path of mid-air, revealing cliffs to us so that we, too, might know what it’s like to dispel the voice of gravity, to feel all directions at once. She is professor of poetry and poetics at UC-San Diego and the author of fifteen poetry collections, including Versed (Wesleyan University Press), which won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2010. Her work is associated with the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetics, interrogating experience through the frictions between life and language, and at the same time pioneering new images of empathy and self-discovery in her unique formation of the lyric mode. Her most recent book of poetry is last year’s Partly: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2015 (Wesleyan). She also released, last year, Conflation, a vinyl recording from Fonograf Editions that “interrogates the difference between texture and tactile; thing unspoken versus thing unseen.”
The Rumpus: So the initial backdrop of our conversation is your vinyl release of Conflation with Fonograf Editions. How did you get involved with Fonograf? We often talk about the significance of poetry as first and foremost an oral tradition, although there’s certainly a different set of written-language constraints and liberations that you utilize in your work—visual cues, spatial measurements—even the very appearance of language. Conflation is more like an audio-realized version of how your poems are activated by their physicality on the page. Do you have any thoughts or intentions about how listeners engage with hearing you read your work on a record? Are there decisions and intentions which collide, commune, and/or diverge when translated from the page to readings on Conflation?
Rae Armantrout: I never imagined I would make a record—“drop an album,” like Beyoncé, except completely different. Jeff [Allesandrelli] contacted me out of the blue and proposed we do this. Fonograf made a previous album with Eileen Myles, so I like the company I’m in.
As for the differences between audio and the printed page, the sonic aspects of poetry are important to me. I read my poems aloud to myself as I’m composing them. And I enjoy reading to an audience. I think people get tone more easily when they hear a writer read her work. Some people have told me they hear more humor in my poems at a live reading than when they see them on the page. I think that may be a matter of pacing. On the other hand, I’ve listened to a lot of poetry readings and I know how much you can miss. If you stop to really register one line, you miss the next three or so.
Rumpus: I agree about latching onto a particular line at a reading and missing out on subsequent lines, as a result.
Armantrout: Records solve that problem because you can always play a cut again. Of course, that doesn’t address the question of the look of a poem on the page. I try to pause at line breaks when I read and to pause even longer for stanza breaks. But it’s not an exact science, whatever Charles Olson thought. So a listener can’t tell, for instance, if a poem is in couplets or whether some lines are hanging off the left margin. There’s really no good way to indicate that with your voice. A poet can use the page to create a sense of precariousness, for instance, that it’s difficult to replicate sonically. Maybe we need both books and records!
Rumpus: Can you talk about the recording process of the album?
Armantrout: It was recorded in my living room in San Diego. It was warm that day but we turned off the air conditioner so it would be quiet. Eventually, we got too warm and had to open the front door so for a while you can hear wind chimes and maybe an occasional passing car. My friend, the poet Ben Doller, recorded it. He used to be in a band so he had good equipment. He wasn’t really listening though. As I recall he was busy on his phone, so it was recorded without an audience. Of course, I was aware, or hopeful, that eventually some people would listen to it.
Rumpus: In your first poem on the record, “Legacy”, there’s some play on the usage of second person. Do you feel like the “you,” or for that matter, the “I”—embodied by your own voice, carries a different type of direction here, on record, or in your readings vs. the written language of your New & Selected? Is there something different about using subject positions—whether it is “I” or second-person “you”—that changes if an invisible/imagined audience is present as opposed to reading to the presence of a physical audience that you can see and read ‘to’?
Armantrout: I think the habits I’ve picked up reading to “real” audiences carried over into my reading for the record. The poem “Legacy” is structured like a (rather hostile) interview. It’s easier to perceive that on the page, perhaps, because the stanzas in the second person are also in quotation marks. I wrote “Legacy” at the end of a period during which I was being interviewed a lot—not by hostile journalists—but occasionally by people who hadn’t done much prep. I was actually asked whether words just “pop into my head.” I mean, I assume words pop into everybody’s head. Tell me if I’m wrong. Anyway, I decided to have some fun with the interview format. The questions are mostly reasonable, but, in the poem, I decided to answer them as if I were someone else—a very nefarious character. So I answer that question about words popping in my head as if I were thinking of bombs or mines: “Some may go unexploded.” When I read the poem aloud, I do what I can with my voice to suggest that there is a tension or at least a disconnect between the questioner and the respondent. I don’t know how clear that is. I have a good time with it though.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to me that in that line—“some may go unexploded”—you were drawn toward the negative. I think, in some ways, you’re playing with potentiality or capacity or the something of language which makes it unique. And also playing with a distance between the surface materiality of language, like as an object, versus what it does. I’m wondering to what extent you feel like your attraction, as a poet, is in the play (or tension) of pushing language around (and also reorienting the ways we’re familiar with it) and watching the different things it then does. I guess another way of asking that (at the risk of sounding kind of idealistic or reductive) where does your sense of urgency come from in the will to “do” and to create using language? I intuit a distinct sense of excitement in your desire to do that—but I’m wondering how you see it from your perspective as the creator.
Armantrout: Yes, I am attracted to looking at the different things language can mean even in one (sometimes quite ordinary) utterance. Writing is partly about listening closely to yourself as you think or compose and being aware of the different tensions and weights among the words, the different directions any one of them could lead. I like to play with the multiplicity and instability of meaning partly out of a sense of adventure, to see where that takes me and partly in a whistling past the graveyard kind of way because, of course, sensing stable meaning fall away can be scary. For example, we could look at the first section of the title poem, “Conflation”:
As a tree
one a certain
drawn in and held
until it turns
The first interesting word there, to me anyway, is “concerted.” Literally it means coordinated. In contemporary English, however, it almost always precedes the word effort. Not here. So, in a way, it is wrenched from its somnambulant path. The word that follows is “atmosphere.” How can a reader make sense of that? A tree literally pulls in and processes molecules from the surrounding atmosphere. So at this point, we’re thinking of “atmosphere” in a physical, material sense. But then the word “ambience” destabilizes things. It lifts us off the literal level. In a different context, atmosphere and ambience can be synonyms. What happens if they’re made synonymous in this poem? I think it takes the trees out of the frame of physical, automatic processes and makes them into willful creatures—and aesthetes. (It almost makes them seem frivolous—or not, depending on how you feel about aesthetes.) At the end of the section, the trees appear to have turned green by holding their breath as a child does in a tantrum. I think the trajectory of these lines is reasonable word to word. Atmosphere can take you to ambience, for instance, and “drawn in” can take you to “turns green” (instead of blue)—but the ultimate result isn’t exactly reasonable. It might leave you asking, “How did I get here?”
Rumpus: I think a lot of what makes your poetry exciting is precisely that—the kind of “how did I get here” (“how do I work this?”) breakdown where dependence and relation mean everything, but which might also make it vulnerable to a type of skepticism aimed, namely, at intention. I think your work’s power relies on a certain mixture of seduction and trust—in that the experience of language can be (and is) a legitimate experience unto itself. (Lines from “Word Problems” come to mind: “the soul is made up of appearance minus things.”) In achieving that bond with the reader, you’re able to do a lot with proposition—‘this, but what if that’—lots of ‘if’ in particular. I think it’s not uncommon to hear a ‘the answer is more interesting than the question’ type of critique. So given the frequently interrogative and propositional nature of your work, I really don’t believe that you’d think that’s true… or is true in some deceptive way?
Armantrout: You got my Talking Heads reference. Let me try to answer your question from the bottom up. You’re right, I don’t think answers are more interesting or more valuable than questions. In the sciences, for instance, asking a good question is probably the most important thing. An answer should lead to another question. That’s how things keep moving. As you point out, the word “if” plays a pretty prominent role in my work. I think of the poems as thought experiments. They ask, “If such and such were true, what would that imply, what would it look like or feel like?” The statements in the poems are often hypothetical. So you’re not always expected to believe or really trust the speaker. I mean sometimes the speaker is me doing my best to get it right—and sometimes it’s someone or something else. Sometimes it’s perverse. For instance, the voice in the section of “Conflation” I quoted sounds authoritative and self-assured, but it’s leading us to a rather absurd conclusion—almost off a cliff. You mention seduction and trust. Sometimes we let ourselves be seduced without fully trusting the other party. Sometimes that’s part of the fun. The tone the voice sets can carry you. I guess I want the reader to trust me in some sense, but also to be wary. It may be that I’m most sincere when I’m posing questions and least sincere when making assertions.
Rumpus: On the notion of sincerity, I feel like poets have to be or are asked to be accountable for their work in a unique way, perhaps in ways that other writers are not. Do you feel like that’s the case? Like, how important is it to you be a real-life ‘person’ as a counterpart to your work? In ways that, say, might include as much as aligning yourself with a certain politics or discourse of poetics, being responsible for articulating that position in relation to your work—or as little as the prefacing of poems at readings…this poem is about ‘x’ and now here’s the poem itself. How necessary is that for poetry in general, and what role does it play for you, personally? Are there any signifiers that you find more or less useful in delineating your work—’lyric’, ‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ or anything else that you hear your work frequently ascribed to?
Armantrout: It’s true that poets have a history of writing “poetics statements” to defend their work or to advocate for the kind of poetry they admire, generally poetry like their own. This goes back at least to Wordsworth and The Lyrical Ballads. It’s not completely clear to me whether the public asks poets to do this or whether they simply feel the impulse. It’s also true that poets tend to form loose groups—the “Romantics” or the “Imagists”, and what have you. And sometimes they write manifestoes in the name of these groups. This can be good. It forces the poet and the audience to think. But it can also be dangerous. It can turn into a branding device so that potential readers believe they know all they need to know once they know you’ve been associated with a certain group or position. It can freeze things in place. (That’s where thinking stops.) Despite that, I tend to like the way poets form communities. Writing can be lonely after all. Modern life can be lonely. Poets do seem to be more social than fiction writers. This could be because of poetry’s roots in the oral tradition—poetry is read aloud and even performed. I’m just speculating, of course. At any rate, because poets form these groups, they learn from one another. That is one of the best things about being a poet. The second part of your question asks about the way poets are expected, in some quarters at least, to be characters who both inhabit and represent their poems. People probably long for something genuinely personal in a society where the personal is often indistinguishable from the “personalized.” Maybe the poetry audience member is searching for his or her own “personal space” and they expect the poet to be a sort of avatar of the private life. But that sort of representation is distasteful to me. Asking a poet to represent the personal life is, paradoxically, to turn the poet into something other than a person.
Rumpus: I recently heard someone describe their theory of what attracts poets to writing and how that attraction differs for novelists: novelists are attracted to character, and what happens to them. And they enact a certain level of their own fantasy of imagination carried out through a creation of several characters that have to negotiate each other and their circumstances. Poets are their own character. And, through their own work, are exploring life itself as a unique fantasy in which they are a part. What do you think about that?
Armantrout: I’ve already discussed my feelings about the conflation of poem and poet as “character.” It might be that people make this identification because of the prominence of “voice” in a poem. Here I don’t mean the actual oral performance of a poem, but the way a poem often seems to be addressing us, the way its diction and word choice give us a sense of the attitude of the poem’s speaker. But a poet can—and I do—write in different voices. Even so, over the years, a characteristic style may emerge. One develops habits. I tend to “throw my voice,” to speak from various positions or as different entities. (This, then, becomes characteristic of me.) In my poem “The Craft Talk,” which I read on the album, I say, “The best thing was to create in the reader or listener an uncertainty as to where the voice she heard was coming from so as to frighten her a little.//Why should I want to frighten her?” It’s characteristic of me to make such an assertion and then question it. Does the fact that I do have characteristic moves turn me into a character? I hope not. My poems tend to put identity and agency into question. For instance, here is the beginning of “My Erasures,” another poem I read on the album, “Conflation”:
My erasures were featured.
I collected debris
to sell as crash art,
So what is my relation to the first speaker person here? The first three of these four lines are found language, statements I collected from the internet and from television. Can I identify with the voices? Sure. After all, like the speaker in the second part, I am a collector. (I’m collecting snippets of verbiage.) And like the speaker in the first section, I am proud when something of mine, even something as peculiar as an “erasure,” is featured. Do I want to identify with these speakers? Probably not. As is often the case, I both am and am not the speaker in this poem. That’s what I mean by saying that I tend to throw identity into question.