Poet-Cosmologist: A Conversation with Bruce Beasley
In 2002, as a student at Western Washington University, I enrolled in a course called “Experimental Poets and Poetics” with Bruce Beasley. For years since, I have struggled to find the words for how his presence in that classroom—his seeming embodiment of the poems he read aloud to us and the stunning insights he offered into our own work—both bewildered and bewitched me.
When I graduated, I didn’t want to lose the intellectual and emotional energy of Bruce in my writing and teaching life, so I read his books, kept them close at hand, revisited them often. And what is that experience like? Reading Beasley is like venturing into a new cosmos behind every cover, where the familiar is always made strange but the strange is also, often simultaneously, revealed to be luminous and necessary and hauntingly familiar.
Recently, Bruce and I caught up in person, wandered about Key Biscayne, and talked about, well, absolutely everything.
The Rumpus: Is there anything you would have rather been than a poet, or perhaps something you wished to be in addition to a poet? What wishes and would-be professions have fueled, and continue to fuel, your poems?
Bruce Beasley: Cosmologist, all the way. I think of myself as a poet-cosmologist and am deeply interested in the physical and quantum properties of things. I have to come at that from a layperson’s perspective, though, which frustrates me no end. I didn’t know when I was in college how utterly fascinated I would become by physics and mathematics, and especially the kind of physics that runs up against “boundary conditions” at the cusp of what is knowable.
I’ve just finished a long poem that deals with Newton’s notion that space or the vacuum is the “sensorium” of God, touching everything and allowing God to interact simultaneously with everything in the cosmos, in relation to ideas in loop quantum gravity about the structure of spacetime in the very grounding of the vacuum. I’d never choose not to be a poet, but if I had it to do all over again, I would study physics and mathematics at an advanced level. I included Schrödinger’s wave equation in the text of the poem I just finished, imagining God’s sensorium tasting the mathematics of it.
Rumpus: I’m wondering about your process of learning/studying/immersing yourself in other disciplines—math and physics, but also religion and biology and technology, given the scope of your poetry collections to date—and then bringing newly acquired knowledge into a poem. Do you think of yourself as a translator or intermediary of sorts, a bridge between the literary arts and other ways of knowing? And secondly, I’m wondering about a particular moment, or maybe a series of moments, where you learned something from a poem that thrilled you comparably to Max Tegmark’s “gigantic mathematical object”? In other words, what have poems taught you that prose hasn’t or can’t?
Beasley: The painter Giorgio de Chirico once said he wanted to live in the world “as in a vast museum of strangeness.” I often feel like the poems I love best are the ones that are the most richly detailed guides to that vast museum. Multiple times a day I discover staggering facts of existence’s magnificent strangeness from reading poems. Recently, Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Carpenter Ant” taught me that carpenter ants have a defense mechanism by which they self-destruct by exploding when threatened. That astonishing fact I could have read in a book on entomology, but in a poem it amazes even more. Hayes in his poem plays with the homonym of “ant” and “aunt” and tells the story, through the carpenter ant fact, of an aunt who self-destructs in madness and, like the carpenter ant, tears apart the walls of her house, in her case because she’s convinced they contain listening devices, bugs.
The emotional facts and scientific facts (and linguistic facts) coalesce in a way I find thrilling. In David Wojahn’s gorgeous new book For the Scribe, I learned about the life of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee taught American Sign Language and raised as a human, and about how hard it is to teach robots the task of folding laundry, and about the Inca emperor Atahualpa who wore tunics made of the skins of vampire bats and of the bodies of hummingbirds. Poems distill the world into its most rich and fascinating parts, cutting out so much of the dull.
Beyond the fact of facts, though, poems give me the fact of emotions: as when Elizabeth Bishop says, in lines that won’t stop going through my mind, “so many things seem filled with the intent / To be lost that their loss is no disaster.” You could spend a lifetime absorbing the emotional truths and lies of that sentence. Everywhere I look in Emily Dickinson I’m zapped again with facts of emotion, facts that are as paradoxical and oxymoronic and unplumbable as our emotions are: “Not to discover weakness is / The Artifice of strength—”; “Ourself behind ourself, concealed— / Should startle most—”; “Anger as soon as fed is dead— / ‘Tis starving makes it fat—.”
Rumpus: I love everything about this answer—and how much of your capaciousness as a person and poet is bestowed upon me as a reader of it!—but I’m going to zero in on one particular sentence: “Poems distill the world into its most rich and fascinating parts, cutting out so much of the dull.” I’m curious to know if you actually find anything dull in this world, anything boring or not worthy of your time? Do you think poems have the capacity not only to mine what is already compelling on its own terms (e.g. the carpenter ant’s capacity for self-annihilation) and augment/explore/distill those qualities, but also to reanimate what is dull in this world, making it no longer so? Is poetry perhaps an antidote to dullness in its essential enterprise?
Beasley: There’s a line of Dickinson I think of all the time: “awed beyond my errand—.” The cusp of errand and awe is where poetry always is for me. We can’t be astonished all the time; we’d go mad. We can’t be in the endless loop of errand after errand that has to be done all over again or we’d be bored to the bone. Poetry for me is often a negotiation between Errand and Awe. I’ve long had in mind a poem I still haven’t written but will someday called “Errands of Awe,” which would concern the spirituality of ordinary events like going to the dentist, washing dishes, doing laundry, flossing teeth, doing taxes.
In my new book All Soul Parts Returned, I have a long sequence called “The Mass of the Ordinary,” a meditation on the sacredness of the present tense, a Roman Catholic Mass for ordinary life. The word “ordinary” means the prayers and liturgy that make up the Mass and also the word’s ordinary usage, defined as “commonplace, of no particular interest or importance.” (If the commonplace is unimportant, we’re in deep trouble, as the Commonplace is mostly where we live.) So the poem’s conceived as an Ordinary for the ordinary, seeking a sacramentality of the usual rather than moments of revelation or epiphany.
Much of the ordinary is of “particular interest or importance” to me. Come to think of it, my poems are full of accidentally oracular statements drawn from airplane signs (“Beyond this point you must continue to exit”), computer pop-up messages (“You are connected to the server Chronos”), New Age pamphlets (“ALL SOUL PARTS RETURNED” guaranteed in a $300 “soul retrieval” service), IRS documents (“you must declare your passive losses”), conversations with Verizon customer service: “When we say ‘trade in any used cell phone for $300’, any doesn’t really mean any.” I find the languages of bureaucracy and advertising and authoritative signage boring and fascinating at once. For me, poetry is often a place where the banal and the deeply emotional and metaphysical come into collision, with complete misunderstanding on both sides. I incorporated an absurdly complicated mathematical formula invented to determine who would get raises at my university, and by how much, into the Credo section of my Mass, imagining a bureaucracy of salvation that used a formula to determine who got salvation, and how much of it they got.
Poetry is where originally I went to get away from banality of language and thinking; the rich strangeness of language and cadence and vocabulary in poems when I first discovered it felt like I was in one of those dreams where you open a door you’d never noticed before and you’re in a new world where everything is, as Dickinson said about the period after experiencing a loved one’s death, italicized. But it’s hard to read all italics. The ordinary and the Ordinary have to make each other visible, I think, as Roman and italic typefaces do.
Rumpus: Not every reader of this interview is as fortunate as I am to have studied with you in a graduate classroom. I think “resistance to closure” is an apt description of your pedagogical approach. I found my own poems, and my sense of what a poem could be, opening relentlessly—doors within doors—while studying with you and while reading poets whose work you introduced me to: Jorie Graham, C.D. Wright, Claudia Rankine, Charles Wright, Harryette Mullen, and Brenda Hillman are just a few who spring to mind.
How would you describe your teaching style? Do you find commonalities between the classes and the poems you cultivate? What are “go-to” poems and exercises you use to help initiate new poets?
Beasley: I often think of classes I’m teaching as poems I’m in the process of writing or revising: the same kind of mixture of experimentation to see what might happen and ordering and taking away what isn’t what I wanted to happen. Also listening to what the class wants and needs, as when I’m writing I often feel like the poem wants things I didn’t know it wanted and needs to become things I hadn’t expected it to become. I like to think of the various segments of a course I’m teaching as if they were sections of a segmented poem: all talking to each other but in unexpected and sometimes surprising ways.
One of my favorite exercises in an introductory class is a metaphor contest; students choose topics (like Donald Trump, high school, Facebook) and write, individually and then in teams, metaphorical images. (It’s based on a brilliant Metafreeforall contest the Colbert Report once did between Colbert and Sean Penn, with Robert Pinsky judging). It gets, in a very playful way, at the nature of metaphoric images. Two of my favorites from last time: experiencing the election of Donald Trump was like feeling old gum on a table’s underside and shuddering when you felt the indentations of teeth; high school was “the muted scratchy end of a VHS tape.”
In graduate classes I’ve been having everybody write on scraps of paper the most astonishingly particular words they can think of (like dewlap: the loose skin hanging from the throat of a cow) and having people grab five words from the pile and write using them. Or assigning each student an individualized word that connects somehow to a subject I know they’re obsessed with and having them research the word and write a poem using the word as a title. Exaugurate: remove blessing from, profane. “Eyestalk ablation”—the removal of eyestalks from female shrimp to stimulate ovulation and spawning—became a brilliant metaphor in a student’s thesis collection. In a recent class on poetry and dreams, I dreamed of a woman who woke with a newspaper in her lap who said, “Oh my God, I’ve brought it back.” It was the daily newspaper from the dream world and all its headlines and stories were what happened in her dreams, even the ones she didn’t remember. I had the class that day work in teams to make a literal newspaper of their dreams, with headlines and lead paragraphs and all the melodramatic excesses of tabloid magazines.
I’ve also been assigning students to go for a really long walk with an idea in mind and a pack of index cards and write lines, phrases, images, words that occur to them as they walk, and assemble a poem based on arranging the cards when they get home. I want to blast open students’ (and my own) conceptions of what a poem is or has to be by considering what it isn’t yet or could come to be, and also to disturb assumptions about what the process of composing ought to be like. Sometimes deranging notions of how and where a poem gets written can completely change ideas about what a poem, at its core, even is.
Rumpus: In a multi-genre, introductory seminar I teach at FIU, I try to encourage metaphorical thinking by distributing a handout where students begin by filling in the blank after statements like “I am a(n) _____ (kitchen appliance)” or “I am a(n) _______ (animated movie).” Later, we may talk about why someone perceives himself to be a toaster, say, or the Pixar film Monsters, Inc. From there, a scene might evolve around a breakfast table, or a cine-ekphrastic poem perhaps, but my goal is to steer students toward self-metaphorizing without my prompts, and ultimately toward metaphorizing other entities and experiences like the ones you mentioned above.
Given our mutual commitment to metaphor, I have to ask: how would you describe yourself in metaphorical terms? Bruce Beasley is ________. (Multiple metaphors welcome!)
Beasley: I’ve been fascinated recently by the scarab or dung beetle, sacred to the ancient Egyptians; its rolling of the dung ball they associated with the passage of the sun from dawn to dusk, east to west, and into darkness and death each night only to be resurrected in the morning. The god Khepri, whose name means “he who brings into being”—had the body of a human and the head of a dung beetle. Recent investigations have demonstrated the dung beetle to be the first known insect to practice celestial navigation by climbing on top of its dung ball and performing an “orientation dance” where it takes a snapshot of the position of the Milky Way. So Bruce Beasley is a scarab beetle, aiming to find the link between terrestrial and celestial. And pausing on the way to do his orientation dance to keep himself aligned with the cosmos.
Rumpus: Earlier, you mentioned that you haven’t written a poem in many years that wasn’t preceded by extensive research. Do you recall what precipitated the shift toward research?
Beasley: It’s been a terrestrial-celestial Orientation Dance all along. I think the emotional and thematic concerns of my poems have remained fairly consistent throughout the eight books. In my first book, Spirituals, there are prayers, elegies, meditations on Biblical narratives, and an obsession with death and its redemption (the deaths of my father when I was fifteen, and of my mother when I was twenty; the deaths and resurrections of Christ and Lazarus). It was in my fourth book, Signs and Abominations, that I became impatient with confinements of self and story and the closed forms that went with them, and first began what for me was (and is) thrilling research and wide reading into the poems’ meditations: on multiple personality or dissociation, a multiplicity-in-oneness I twinned with the bodies, minds, and lives of conjoined twins, twinned with my own (fraternal) twinship and with the multiplicities within a single mind or ego; on the racist history of Baconsfield Park where I played as a child, which was given to the city of Macon, Georgia by a Confederate general and senator under the dictates that it would only ever be used by “white women and children”; on Michelangelo and Andres Serrano and Flannery O’Connor and Monica Lewinsky and human cloning experimenters and unexplained events in contemporary physics and a man in the news who had covered his entire body in tattoos and willed his skin to be preserved in a museum. The movement was away from self and story to seeing the self’s Orientation Dance in juxtaposition with the sciences, arts, news, history, the whole world of fascinations beyond (but including) the autobiographical. “The long journey out of the self,” Roethke called it.
The forms of my poems have become more disruptive of paraphrasable content, more aware of language as medium and of the things words and syllables do that no other medium (marble, oil paint, saxophone) can do. The way words, like conjoined bodies, can partake of multiplicity and singularity at once. I’ve grown a deep and abiding respect for ambiguity and mystery as a means, paradoxically, toward epiphany: an obsession with expanding rather than constricting meanings, meaning being (in a phrase I love from Louis MacNeice) “incorrigibly plural.”