Presenting engagements (including reviews) of poetry books & projects. Occasionally there will be Featured Poets, as well as offerings from "The Critic Writes Poems" series. Deadline is ongoing: reviews will be posted as submitted and accepted. Please engage!
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
NORMAN FISCHER INTERVIEWS DENISE NEWMAN
Interview with Denise Newman about her book Future People (Apogee,
2016) by Norman Fischer
NF: In the title work, “Future People,” you are reacting to the
photographic portraits by Gigi Janchang from her series Portraits: 2084.
Your poem is pretty intense and repeats the phrases "a moral
structure" and "in reality" which take on resonance and urgency
with each iteration. There also seems to be some kind of theology going on
here. Can you shed some light on, first, how these (to me) weird pictures relate
to the poem, and, second, if possible, what you intend in the poem?
DN: The poem is in collaboration with Gigi. She photographed dozens people, and then collaged single features to
create new faces. As I was writing my poem, she began creating younger
portraits influenced by my take on them. I was curious about what made these
future people slightly creepy. Their eyes are wet and lively, but they seem
stuck, as though trapped between life and death. I decided to set them in
motion to see how they’d function in life, and if there was any hope for them.
At some point in the writing, I realized that what was missing was the glue
that holds all the features together, what some might call a soul.
Lazarus arrives mid-way in the poem to help. He’s been dead, so he
understands their situation, and he patiently tries to put them in reality, not
by teaching them a moral code, but by showing respect and kindness. He knows
he’ll fail, but still he tries to help. If there’s a theology here, it’s in Lazarus’s actions, which are not situated in fear, like
the moral code, but rather, compassion—a meeting.
“He knows he’ll fail.” Probably true, but sad. Is it Lazarus who is
speaking these lines:
“A bell stuffed with newspapers won’t ring,
that’s how it is, but I hear things, for shame,
hear them discussing the removal
of so and so, in a tone of it’s done already,
but I object or, I, object,
cried on my sock and it got wet”
I love this passage, for its complexity (“I object, and I, object”
seems like the problem in a nutshell) and its precise analysis of our moment
(“A bell stuffed with newspapers can’t ring”). What about the use of the word
“shame” here? Is Lazarus, are you’re we all, ashamed because “we know we’ll
That’s actually the female future person speaking.
Lazarus is encouraging her to describe her experience; she’s been mute, but
paying attention to the violence around her. She objects to it, and yet she’s
stuck as their object. Sad as the moment is, Lazarus is having a little success
here with her.
This is about the book’s opening series of short poems, which seem to
enact the often terrible and always interesting limitations of language. I’m
homing in on two lines from the poem SHADE:
Pick a word or two from its
interior air: ERROR
In light of your idea of soul as glue, that holds a life together as
real (from your first answer) what does language have to do with it? That is,
is this series telling us something about the relation of ‘soul’ to ‘language?’
Your question makes me see a connection between the short, torqued
poems and the future people, whose faces have the same effect as the words
ERROR MIRROR. They both attract and repulse because they’re only slightly off.
You find the same magnetic incongruence between language and phenomena, and the
finer the articulation the more charged those gaps seem. The future people have
adapted to being illusory and their language reflects this (empty speech or no
speech at all). Lazarus goads them to say what they’re really thinking so that
maybe they’ll understand what’s imprisoning them. I think language is an
essential limb of consciousness that we need to keep track of and nourish.
In a way, I was a future person writing the short poems, as I was starting
over with poetry. After writing “The Book of Thel,” I felt emptied out and
stopped writing. I began making videos where I worked with other elements, like
ants and snails, to put simple phrases in play, such as “in no way.” When I
returned to writing a couple of years later, I started with strange words and
their etymologies, like barbican and futtock, and ordinary words and their
surprising etymologies, like “autopsy,” meaning
“to see with your own eyes.” I was returning to the mysterious depths of
language, which means returning to the mysterious depths of being a human.
“Mysterious depths,” yes. Maybe it took not writing for a while to get
to that, your “being
emptied out.”Which brings me to my next
question, about “The Book of Thel” series, which I find, yes, quite intricate.
I can see how it might have worn you out! Your photo preceding the poem —of a
woman walking on a stone labyrinth on an open plain— rhymes with Blake’s poem
by the same name: a young women (Thel) full of questions setting out from
innocence into the impossible world. I know you have a daughter, Eva, who is
just on the brink of such a journey. Though the poem’s tone is easy, it seems
to evoke insolvable problems particular to the feminine— though I am not sure.
What was your impulse in writing it? Also, one of the poems in the series is
dedicated to Leslie Scalapino our mutual friend, whose life was possibly also
such a journey. To what extent does her work inspire the poem?
That’s a photo of Eva. She’s the main inspiration for Thel. When she
was in the third grade she told me she didn't want to progress any more—she
wanted to stay right there at that age. I became curious about the
transition she was sensing, and it got me thinking of Blake’s poem, where Thel,
a girl living in eternity, becomes interested in the mortals and decides to go
experience life on the other side. I used Blake’s poem as my reference point,
and followed a similar trajectory of a young woman coming of age, but in a
contemporary setting. The objectification Thel experiences, in a job interview
and elsewhere, is exactly what’s coming to light now, and may be what my
daughter was sensing—the world of deception and exploitation awaiting her.
Leslie Scalapino has had such a tremendous influence on my writing and
thinking, it’s hard to put a finger on any one thing (though sticking a
dedication in the middle of a series is something she’d do). Her fierceness to
name falsities, especially hierarchies, is a strong part of this. She wrote to
discover reality for herself. Her thinking and discovering is in the whipped up
syntax, which is why it was so mesmerizing to hear her read. I often think of
her phrase, “the self is a guinea pig.” It’s one of my guiding principles.
Leslie died as I was writing Thel. I had a dream about her a month
after her death, and then wrote that section you refer to. She becomes another
guide for Thel, enabling her to be spontaneous with her emotions, and also to
recognize what does not die—everything unborn.
This question is about the section of short poems that follows The
Book of Thel. Since Nov 9, 2016 (Trump election victory) it
seems the poetry world has been obsessed with response and resistance. Although
the poems in this section were written before that, they seem pointedly political,
but differently. I want to zero in on the final poem in the series, Patience Is
It’s the relationship between the void and avoid
old monk and donkey—
An animal kicks its itch and the artist says
“at this point we could go toward
utopias or total destruction.”
It’s that moment of hesitation
at the exit marked exist.
You seem to be claiming a particular sort of politics for the artist.
Can you say more about that?
that you mention it, there might be a political mode suggested here. “Patience” is a key word—what Obama often called for—slow
change. But there needs to be a diversity of expressions/visions, infiltrating
all sectors of society for lasting change to occur, and poetry is particularly
necessary now because it invigorates the main tool of politics —language—with
few years ago I started feeling frustrated with the marginalization of poetry
in the US. I attended a lecture by the social practice artist Harrell Fletcher,
and was struck by the generosity of his work. It made me wonder if poetry could
have a similar civic engagement, and so I began experimenting with taking
poetry off the page. In 2015, I received a grant with my friend and colleague
Hazel White to do a large-scale poetry project at the UC Berkeley Botanical
Garden. We decided to engage the staff and visitors to create a humungous index
of all the language that we could capture plus images. In a way, we were doing
poetry live with others, on guided walks and during our weekly open studio. We
asked slanted questions like, “what do the fences not keep out?” and showed
them our bits of research without packaging it up neatly. People said amazing
things, and often seemed surprised by what they were saying. Now I see that I
need both kinds of work—individual, contemplative writing and direct public
engagement (what Octavio Paz called fiesta)—to integrate my roles as artist and citizen.
The last poem in the book, Midsummer Day, evokes Bernadette Mayer's
classic Midwinter Day. Your poem
(four pages long, and evoking "events" of a single clock day) begins
with a quotation from David Bohm, "Time is a theory everyone adopts for
psychological purposes." Time fascinates me too, I seem to write about it
constantly. How does your poem enact (if it does) Bohm's theory of time? And
how do you see this in relation to Bernadette's poem?
Midwinter Day is an important work for me. I learned from Bernadette
Mayer how to write intimately about domestic life, so helpful when our daughter
was young, and also to use time as a form. There’s a poem in my first book that
compresses a whole lifetime into the 24 hours of a day—each hour, a stage of
life. My title, “Midsummer Day” is a nod to Mayer’s book, though I wrote the
poem on that day because it’s my birthday and what I asked for as a gift from
my family—24 hours to write. I’ve done it three years in a row, starting at 5
am, and ending at 4:59 am. It’s a way to get off the grid of time and
experience a complete day from another angle. I easily fall into routines or
feel anxious about time, how I’m always behind. It’s good to step back to realize
how our perception of time is largely made up. All we have is time—we are time,
as you write in your interpretation of Dogen’s essay on time in Magnolias
All At Once, “There is no time other than being, and no being other than
time, and no time other than the time being…at least for the time being.” I
need to recalibrate constantly to experience this.
Amazing: a birthday gift of twenty-four quiet hours to write. Yes, a
gift. As is this interview, thanks Denise.
Thanks, Norman. It’s been a pleasure.
Denise Newman'sother poetry collections are The New Make Believe,
Wild Goods, and Human Forest. She is the translator
of Azorno and The Painted Room, both by the
late Danish poet, Inger Christensen, and Baboon by Naja Marie
Aidt, which won the 2015 PEN Translation Award. Newman is also involved in
video, installation, and social practice projects that explore language and
poetics. She teaches at the California College of the Arts.
Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Zen
Buddhist priest. The latest of his more than twenty-five prose and poetry
titles are the just-out serial poems Untitled Series: Life As It Is (Talisman
House) and On a Train At Night (Presse Universite de Rouen et
Havre).His latest prose works are What Is Zen? Plain Talk for a
Beginner’s Mind, and Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language and
Religion. He lives in Muir Beach, California.