Scaling The National through Poetics: A dialogue between Rodrigo Toscano and Paisley Rekdal

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To begin our interviews series this week, our editors have decided to pull out something a bit SPoOkY: a conversation about contemporary poetics and its divergence from the national toward . . . something (or someplace) else. Poets Paisley Rekdal and Rodrigo Toscano consider what it means to write and teach poetry in todays’ globalized landscape of international and environmental crises through the lenses of their recent projects.

Paisley Rekdal has authored several books of nonfiction and poetry, most recently West: A Translation, which was written in response to being commissioned to write a poem to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the trans-contintental railroad. Her work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and other awards. She served as Utah’s Poet Laureate between 2017-2022, and she teaches at the University of Utah, where she is also the creator and editor of West: A Translation, as well as the community web projects Mapping Literary Utah and Mapping Salt Lake City.

Rodrigo Toscano is a poet whose work has been widely anthologized and translated. He is the recipient of both a New York State Fellowship in Poetry and the Edwin Markham Award. His ninth and most recent poetry collection is The Charm & The Dread (Fence Books, 2022) an “unraveling of the American Imperium.” He works for the Labor Institute, and is based in New Orleans.
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Rodrigo Toscano: I’ve struggled with a first sentence for two weeks now, reason being that I don’t think I think, per se, but rather am thought-through by words, with some part of “me” catching up to them just long enough to string some of them. Like this:

How do we scale our poetic works unto The World?

I’m posing it as a “we” so that I remain implicated in the question. I mean, are we writing to the world at large? Or are we writing to a nation? Or some part of a nation? Perhaps to a not-yet nation, with our presentiments of it merely speculative? Or are we contra-nation types? Or maybe we’re emerging para-national poetic actors stuck in the dress of the national.

I am thinking of scaling because your works span (and scale) entire continents, but also historical epochs. So yeah, How do we scale our poetic works unto The World? Are we surreptitiously nation building? Nation decommissioning?

Paisley Rekdal: I’ve been struggling to answer this question, because there are three questions in it: First, how conscious are we of an audience when we write, and how large do we imagine that audience to be? Second, how much do we believe that the power of our writing can shape the future trajectory of any audience, and its own ideas about or conception of nation-building? Third, how much do we understand our writing to be located in this particular moment of time, with the understanding that our perception of this moment is in fact the “correct” or most perceptive view of our national crisis?

It’s more than likely, for instance, that as we spend time writing poems about the merits of defunding the police or the crisis of gerrymandering in our nation, we are not responding to some more pervasive threat that we haven’t yet fully appreciated. We could argue that the very idea of writing to and within a nation is exactly the problem during the catastrophic shifts caused by climate change. We aren’t really nations anymore, and the desire to work on or address national problems in our writing ignores the fact that the greatest existential threat we are currently experiencing has no political or cultural borders at all.

So my answers to your question will have to be broken down. First, I can’t be conscious of an audience when I’m writing, because then everything I write would turn into a screed. Second, I have to be entirely conscious of an audience, because otherwise my work would turn out to be too private to be understood. Which means that, as a writer, I move in and out of states of consciousness with regard to what I’m saying and who I’m speaking too. Third, I don’t believe that our writing in and of itself has any particular power to affect larger change—that’s the responsibility of the reader.

Reading and literature may not be politically affective on their own terms, but they can have political and moral effects once readers choose to enact them. Finally, in regard to West—it was a commissioned work of requested propaganda. Someone was asking me to write a praise poem about our nation. I resisted that by simply documenting the history of building the transcontinental railroad. What I wanted to build was a portrait of a nation at a particular moment of time, but I also wanted to reconstruct the world of the people building the railroad. And I guess that’s the most important thing to me: not nation-building, but world-building.

You are more directly confronting issues of nation and empire than I am. In The Charm and The Dread, you specifically examine, among other things, the way that the pandemic intersects with all the ways America has failed us. And there’s another way to ask the question you asked:

When we are writing to and into ideas of nation, does that work best via representational poems of history, or poems that basically rip apart all our conventional ideas of syntax?

Thinking about your experiments in Explosion Rocks Springfield or Collapsible Poetics Theater, your poems mine language as much as they mine history, labor, and agency, and I’m always wondering whether (for me) there’s something inherently less powerful about merely describing what happened, which is what I can be accused of doing. Your work asks a different but perhaps more resonant question: How does our very language allow for the thing to occur?

If we change the syntactical forms of our language, do we allow for a new political system—a new nation itself—to emerge? And do we believe that’s even possible, knowing that so few people are going to become “fluent” in this newly strange and estranging language of poetry?

Toscano: It’s true that I’ve delved into experiments of syntactical form that put some amount of stress on received “fluencies,” but I haven’t done it as a commitment to any particular methodology. I don’t believe there’s anything imminently radical to tweaking syntax. At the same time, I don’t think that maximally transparent language carries a magic that’s imminently democratic in outlook. I’ve ranged, you know, from one end of that pool (transparency) to the other (opacity), testing different speech forms to gauge new receptibilities.

For me, what’s recognizable about a contemporary author is a mark (or many marks) of the changing cultural landscapes resulting from tectonic geo-political shifts. For example, the diminution of empire, which is always thought to be a “good thing” among certain political factions, also carries with it unexpected consequences: Witness the chauvinistic nationalisms of Poland and Hungary that sprang up because of a weak EU coupled to a schizoid US policy in the region.

The cultural effects in their wake—whether made up of pro-regime accommodations or a grab bag of resistances—will get aggregated and marked up to “timeless poetry” or panned as “minor poetry.” The same historic churn gives birth to both. Now, of course, I am not saying that the persistence of empires is to be hoped for—not at all. I’m just flagging how the flows of inter-national processes cut across cultural domains. At any rate, that’s how I read your distinction between “world-building” and “nation-building,” that Something Big in our presence isn’t yet clear to us, though it compels us forward.

That’s a long way of saying that I heartily agree with your observation that writers (including myself) “move in and out of states of consciousness” with regard to what’s being expressed and for whom. And if we assume many other poets are grappling with that same dynamic, then what we might be gauging (or judging, if you like) in the present, is the ratio of that “in” and “out.” If some sport a too prophetic stance (and many do), it’s obnoxious. If others are asleep at the wheel, oblivious to the political surround, that, too, sucks.

But, Paisley, you touched on something that I think about a lot. You say, “We aren’t really nations anymore [due to] the catastrophic shifts caused by climate change,” and the desire to work on or address national problems in our writing ignores the fact that the greatest existential threat we are all currently experiencing has no political or cultural borders at all. National shows of “consensus” (of nonconsensus) on climate change are often nothing but dispiriting. And yet, jumping straight to “the global,” which poets have been tempted to do since the early twentieth century, doesn’t seem to be quite working either. The metaphysics imbedded in that global, in my opinion, lean quite heavily on commodity trade networks. And when those networks are firing on all pistons, curiously, and even contradictorily, it creates a false optimism for all things “post-national.”

I’m thinking instead about global regions. Your poetics have at times edged out to intersect “Asia” and mine have bent towards “Latin America” as an interruptive for “America.” I wonder what’s moving us to do that? Biographies, of course, here, count. But I’m skeptical of biographies as being the primum mobile of our poetic expressions. How much value do you put on authorial intention? And what are you feeling about where “we” (a slice of the North American populus) are in terms of US-poetry leaning toward (and I hate this phrase) “a reimagining of the national?”

Rekdal: I love how we just jumped into the most difficult questions we could possibly ask about poetry. I’ll tackle the last questions you asked about how our various poetics have at time addressed “Asia” and “Latin America”—and I think those quotation marks are important for me because I can’t really claim to be writing in any way an Asian poetry but an Asian American poetry that must at times counteract prevailing American cultural fantasies of “Asia.”

In part, then, I’m pushed to write across imaginative borders because I’ve been asked since birth what I am, where I’m from, whether I could or should legitimately claim myself as “one” identity or another, something I think all Asian Americans get asked, but these questions become more fraught the further away we generationally and racially grow from the supposed “source” of our perceived difference. But I also hate this answer, too, because it suggests I’m at the mercy of other people’s desires, which is why I, too, am skeptical of biographies as being the source of our poetics. I’m skeptical of any ideas of authenticity, of origin stories, even of the purported exceptionalism of biracial identity itself—as if I could be boiled down to a set of issues, or that certain of my poems are “more” or “less” biracial/Asian American because they tackle particular subjects and not others. I suspect, but I might be wrong, that this would irritate you as well, since your poetics are wide-ranging in their formal and intellectual interests. It’s not to say that ethnicity or identity don’t play some part in all our writing, it’s just that it’s a more seamless part of the performance—if a poem is like a body, it’s like an organ that functions within the body, not the whole body itself.

But if I’m reading your questions right, there’s something else at stake in our writing to and about and within a nation regarding optimism and “commodity trade networks,” and that may be the question of how our poetry itself takes on a certain cultural capital—and, ironically, how the most utopic post-nation stances in a poem could most successfully trade on such cultural capital.

There’s a certain type of critic we’re all familiar with who grumbles about identity politics generating cultural capital in the literary marketplace, and I find myself at times also grumbling about how particular narratives about identity get traded upon—not just the most traumatic, but the triumphal ones, too, which to me track how particular identities are meant to function within our national borders. Either the non-white, non-male, queer individual suffers terribly, or reaches some sort of assimilative catharsis that feels radically hopeful about said suffering. In either case, these narratives uphold ideas we are meant to have about our nation itself at this moment in time. America destroys its people, or America celebrates its difference; America is, by nature, set to implode, or its arc actually does bend towards justice. Regardless, the question remains the same:

How much do we *want* to invest in our particular fantasies of nation?

It’s natural, of course, that this question would be so pressing now when, globally, the rise of autocracy is everywhere. But I do feel the pressure of this question in almost every book of contemporary American poetry that I read, and it’s one that I certainly engage in my work on the transcontinental railroad. One other trend I note is that the most popular contemporary American poets seem to have metabolized their Rukeyser, Rich, and Lorde: There’s a strong correlation between the personal and political that implicitly collapses the autobiographical arc with conversations we are having about nation. But while this poetry is deeply moving to me, I’m not always convinced that I want to feel my way through these conversations. Sometimes, I find the personal narrative too limited, that it misses some fundamental complexity about nation that, though it involves people’s lives—for sure!—must also require us to think about non-human, impersonal realities. I guess this, to me, is more a question of genre then than solely contemporary poetry—here is where nonfiction can do what poetry (at least conventionally expressive poetry) can’t or refuses to do.

This is a long way of saying that some part of me distrusts authorial intention—even my own. Who am I pandering to? What kind of fantasy am I consciously/unconsciously upholding to trade on people’s anodyne assumptions about how we are supposed to feel about our nation, or any nation, right now?

I want to turn the questions back to you: Where do you think the contemporary American poetry scene is headed with regard to “reimagining the national?” And are there any fantasies you worry about perpetuating in your own work?

Toscano: From my vantage point, what I am seeing in mags, hearing at lots of readings, and noting in many a poem posted to Instagram, is sentiment. Transient feelings about feelings of deliverance from (I’d say, national) anxiety. People are micro-dosing on sentimental poetry. And the market for it is quite robust. I agree with you that many poets have “metabolized” their Rukeyser, Rich, and Lorde, merging the personal onto the political, but what I find missing from too much contemporary poetry is the deep historical sensibilities of those three poets. Take Rich, for example. Her later work takes a hard turn toward historical materialist thinking. It is also implicitly critical of her previous phases while maintaining an open face to the world as it’s developing. One might say it’s epic in scope, but at the scale of lyric. To say nothing of Lorde, whose writing is a veritable lab of ideological analysis. Another tendency I’m seeing is the rendering of fully functionalized politics into verse. For example, if one identifies as a “anarchist,” then the planks to that worldview are wheeled out whole cloth. I’m demarcating “anarchist” here, because I think that group would be the most unnerved by their politics being functionalized. I could just as easily say “liberal” or “socialist,” let alone the dozens of right-leaning worldviews.

I’m interested in poetics that give in more to the stumbling involved in even proposing a poetics. At the same time, it’d be optimal if those poetics would actively sculpt those stumbles into forms that are themselves reaching for a meta-politics. After that (rummaging through this playful wish list), I’d want to see those meta-politics get tested by yet more poetics. And then, finally, we might be able to begin to sense what those meta-politics might be reaching towards in terms of a programmatic politics in the world. This is all to say that I’m deeply craving reaches, failed reaches even, not a “grasping” of any known agency. Again, here, Lorde’s poetics are exemplary, in my opinion, as they’re always on the lookout for legitimally new forms of agency. But I differ quite a bit from that kind of poet, and the main reason for that is that my body isn’t under the same kind of surveillance.

This brings me back to your project West: A Translation. One thing you do there is imagine speak-abilities of “people”—long dead folks whose languages and idiomatic expressions are nearly “out of reach,” and yet, you reach for all of it. I’m glad you did it exactly as you did. It’s a risk. You’ve written abundantly about these issues of representation in your book, Appropriate, A Provocation, so I don’t want to prompt you to reiterate what you’ve said on the matter, but rather I want to ask you something more targeted, and I’ll put it like this:

You know that one iconic photograph of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, where the two trains are head-to-head and included in the frame (it looks like to me) are people clothed in formal, but dusty clothing— if people peruse your site, I dare say, they’ll never look at it the same way.

Your project tethers the nationalist monumentalism to the cultural-political realities that undergirded that momentous achievement. How do you feel about it now, after some time has passed?

I ask this because one of the main things you touch on in Appropriate is how standards of representation change over time, and often very rapidly.

Rekdal: The funny thing about writing Appropriate and then doing something like West, which is entirely appropriative (though so is Nightingale, since it uses Ovid explicitly as its frame), is that I actually moved away from an anti-appropriative stance. I find myself thinking of appropriation as a useful political tool with regard to writing about the transcontinental, since the labor of so many men and women was absorbed into and rendered invisible by these railroad companies. Going into the archives and trying to return these voices to the spotlight—I won’t say “liberate”—is a way of allowing contemporary readers to see what many of these workers, at the time, didn’t see themselves as sharing. Irish, Black, Chinese, and Mormon workers were getting exploited—not equally so, but certainly no one was being treated well. Had they been willing to see what they had in common with each other, they might have been more effective overall in getting their own labor needs addressed. These were people who, for many reasons, didn’t trust or even hated the other groups they worked alongside.

One of the accidental benefits of appropriation isn’t so much emotional identification or empathy with the “other” (whomever we image that “other” to be), but to see yourself in political conversation with another. Appropriating all of these voices allows me to make that point, while also allowing for specific differences of race, gender, and even sexuality to emerge. For instance, in the poem written in the voices of Black railroad porters, the ways that the Black unions privileged male experiences becomes explicit when one of the Black female workers says, in essence, that unions never protected her from sexual harassment, or any other workplace discrimination she’d specifically experienced.

It also allowed me to do something that hopefully works against what you term “over-functionalization,” which is to reveal how, within the same document, a speaker might make progressive claims about race and labor that all of us might be in agreement with today, which then quickly devolve into very racist discourse that we would despise. I’m thinking about the letter by Norman Asing, which I appropriate from an op-ed he wrote in 1850, where he effectively says to the California governor that the foundation of American democracy is color-blind but that Chinese workers don’t want to be treated like or imagined as at all similar to African Americans. We see that kind of racial triangulation still playing out today—the “good” Asian American minority versus the “bad” Black American minority.

I’ve seen Asing’s letter excerpted in other Asian American sources before, and it always strikes me how they erase this particular part of his argument in order to make him more politically palatable. But the reality is, the politics he imagines are being thought out in real time in his letter—it doesn’t arrive with all conclusions foregone, though it hints at what those racist conclusions may finally be. The problem with writing poems about the railroad in our current moment is that you can actually come in with too clear a political point to make, so the question for me always became:

How can I use other people’s voices to muddy my own position, my own political inclination for how to see this system?

How does the railroad anticipate, but certainly not over-determine, who we have currently become? Is the railroad always bad? What does the railroad signify? Going back to your question, that iconic photograph is, I hope, undercut overall by the range of voices that I appropriate. But the poem’s visual and textual extravagance is meant to duplicate the monumentality of the transcontinental itself. If I only look at this nationalist monument as a moral or political failure done in the service of making certain people rich, do I also miss the point of what the railroad also was: a way to link, connect, and also rebind the nation together after slavery and war? Wasn’t the railroad, in that sense, another kind of political commitment to an idea of nation that could be more progressive?

I’m not blind or naïve: I know that the railroad’s global impact was, largely, not about racial progress and that it destroyed far more than it actually built. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have metaphoric weight that could be read as positive, especially by those writing about the railroad at the time. Appropriation allows me to bring history palpably in, so whatever evolution of political interpretation of the railroad I have, it’s not arriving without some context. It also doesn’t arrive without the awareness that individuals are shaped by different histories, even as History (with a capital “h”) is shared by all.

So that gets us to one of the stickier parts of our conversation: What do you think the role of sentiment and aesthetics are in poetry? And do you think there’s something about how poetry is expected to make us “feel” that hurts or helps us when it comes to political thinking in poems?

Toscano: I think of “sentiments” as building blocks toward perspectives and convictions. Take for instance the phrases, “growing anti-war sentiment” or “growing anti-Russian sentiment.” Serious stuff, right? Poetry can and often does register sentiments from the unfolding contradictions of the societies we live in, but the reason I am currently down on the ubiquity of what I call “the poetry of sentiment,” is that those poetries precisely want to stay at that incipient level of meaning-making. You know that “Aww” you hear at so many poetry readings? I see that gesture as an affirmation of some Edenic state of social being that’s—what? Marred by a dangerous Big Outside? I mean, people want (are recruited) to protect the poem, and by extension the poet, and by extension of that, the category of people that the poet is identified with. For me, the path of poetics /meta-politics / politics requires a constant refiguring of that first level: poetics that yeah, is part sentiment, but is also, post-sentiment.

As to “aesthetic strategies,” I don’t know which are ultimately effective for either nation-building or deconstructing. Certain representational schemes seem to work for one thing and not the other, at other times, for both, or neither. On that level, I’m open to literally anything. It’s more the tactics that get my attention, that delight me, or leave me blah. Take your West: A Translation: The “strategy” is rendered transparent. You’ve even turned it into a user interactive installation. But then the play-by-play unfolds in the parts. Your “tactics” (tales, lyrical instances) not only compliment your strategy (a modular docu-poem), but they also reset the strategy at points along the way. This is all to say that I have to actually engage a poetic project at a granular level in order to “scale” any motions of the nation as a whole.

In terms of whether the transcontinental was politically progressive or regressive, I agree, it’s both. The question rather is when does something become “progressive” and for whom, which you alluded to. Think of the cotton gin. That technical achievement cruelly served to extend chattel slavery in the south, but then, later, served to speed up production for developing nations. In fact, nation-states themselves can be thought of in this way too. On the one hand, they “communalize” people to think beyond themselves as individuals, and at the same time, they tend to mythicize others. But what’s also fascinating to me about West is how the commission for it literally landed on your lap and how you proceeded to make something outside of your range of “personal” aesthetic concerns (at that time). Now that some time has passed, how do you look at the project? You mentioned that the employment of other people’s voices served to “muddy” your own political inclinations. In what way? Also, what do you see as being next for you, in terms of poetic projects?

Rekdal: I’m deep into copyedits for the book now, so I’m looking at the project through the lens of exhaustion. Because the book also includes a whole series of historio-lyric essays that can be read individually or as a sequence, I’m having to do a ton of fact-checking with my copyeditor. It’s making me go back to revisit so many of the voices I include in the book, to see if I do them justice. It’s also making me wonder if I included enough voices that suggest a reason to continue to believe in the American project as a whole. In many ways, I went back to history to find some level of hope—to find people who believed in the commitment of national reimagination, if not Reconstruction. I’m not sure I found anything purely positive—frankly, I wouldn’t trust anything purely positive—but I was struck by the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson, who rode the transcontinental to San Francisco to join his American bride-to-be and was looking at America as a place of tentative, if undefined, hope. For him, the migration West was always about finding some new “good country” that was both constantly escaping the immigrant, but also calling to him/her as well. I don’t know if this “muddies” my own voice enough or not, but it wasn’t something I myself would have articulated. In many ways, West boils down to a single question that opens the sequence, which is something Abraham Lincoln wrote:

Do you believe still in the promise of this Union?

I don’t know that I do or, if I do, exactly why outside of comfort and habit. I suppose the use of all these voices is to create the illusion of a nation engaged in a single conversation, and a way to persuade me to believe this conversation will lead to new and better outcomes.

As for what I’m writing next, it’s a book about teaching and reading poetry. I’m shifting into pedagogical mode for the next bit because I think it’s important to show people how and why to read poetry, and it’s important to share teaching ideas with other educators. I’m at mid-career now, and I believe it’s valuable to share the information I’ve gleaned as a teacher these past twenty-five years. The bulk of graduate students start teaching poetry with very little training, even if they themselves read and write poetry. Enthusiasm can only get you so far in a classroom, however, and so this is a book dedicated to helping people teach poems in ways that won’t generate more hatred of poetry. It’s a low bar, but it’s still really hard to meet. The book is also a lot of fun to write, surprisingly, because I get to say all the things I’ve ever wanted to about what we think a “good” poem is, and what a “good” reader’s responsibility to a poem might be. Spoiler alert: I don’t agree with many definitions of what constitutes “good” in either of these contexts.

Considering your interest in poetics, and your talks on poetry, are you planning a collection of critical essays on poetry? I feel like we don’t have as many poets writing high-level criticism around contemporary poetry as we could. If you did do a volume of essays, which of your talks do you think you’d draw from?

Toscano: In a way, I have been writing a book on poetics by way of these dialogues. At some point it’d be great to have them all in one volume. I’ve really taken to the creative and critical tensions that these dialogues produce. Essays are cool, for sure, and incredibly rewarding to read and write, but I prefer the volleying back and forth. For one, it tempers our respective “agendas” (and it’s hard not to proffer agendas, right?); it also stimulates us to say things we might not say otherwise.

In closing, I want to touch on something you said, via Lincoln: Do you believe still in the promise of this Union? Well, that question is one that I think American poets need to really spend time with, and not be knee-jerk about either way. We don’t want ever-rising hosanas of YES. Neither do we need outright dismissals of all that’s come before, much of it being projective to the way we are now.

One thing I’ll say, however, is that the current reign of Redemptory Poetics in the US might well be stifling alternative poetics. It seems that the institutions demand “hope” poems for every occasion. But that’s one of the main reasons why I reached out to you, because from my perspective, in contrast to enforcing Redemptory Poetics, you employ tactical aesthetics for diverse social interests and experiences. It’s not a mere dabbing over of conditions. It’s legit interesting lab work and results. I can’t wait for your book on teaching poetry. Twenty-five years is a long time to be teaching (you know, twenty-five-and-out is the run for energy workers in the Gulf Coast). So we look forward to you telling us all about poetic spillage in the classroom; what poems have energy stored in them, and indeed, which ones look clean, but burn dirty, and which ones look dirty, but burn clean.

 

 

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Author photos courtesy of Paisley Rekdal and by Clare Welsh


Rodrigo Toscano is a poet and essayist based in New Orleans. He is the author of ten books of poetry. His newest book is The Charm & The Dread (Fence Books, 2022). His Collapsible Poetics Theater was a National Poetry Series selection. He has appeared in over 20 anthologies, including Best American Poetry and Best American Experimental Poetry. Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. rodrigotoscano.com Paisley Rekdal is the author of four books of nonfiction, and seven books of poetry, including Nightingale, Appropriate: A Provocation, and the forthcoming West: A Translation. Her work has received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes, a Fulbright Fellowship, and various state arts council awards. The former Utah poet laureate, she teaches at the University of Utah and is a distinguished professor. More from this author →