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Literature : Interview

In The Sleepy West of The Woody East

by Jack Christian

Christopher DeWeese on writing what you don’t know you know and his new book The Black Forest.

When a person is lost in a forest, he will begin to walk in circles. This is evident in Christopher DeWeese’s The Black Forest, which was published by Octopus Books earlier this year. The difference is that when lost in The Black Forest, I’m pleasantly reminded that existence and telling-about-it require a certain circumlocution. Through these poems, a paradox arises, where their performance is both a means of navigating the forest and the forest itself. The forest and the poem’s place in it remain inscrutable and undefined, but although I am certain there are terms of this existence, at the same moment I am uncertain what those terms are. Thankfully, this is also the situation of each poem’s narrator, who undertakes a sort of line-by-line conjecture, a literal laying of ground on which each poem proceeds. At which point a mysterious form of traveling begins, and I’m glad to follow the voice that emerges to tell about itself in each poem. As I journey through, these poems renew my sense of poetry as a process of being and being as a process of creating. I feel invited to wander, as DeWeese’s narrators do, through land, history, and also through the self.

Jack Christian The poems in The Black Forest make me consider the “I” in poetry. I find there’s a particular pressure on the I in these poems—they read to me like dramatic monologues in which the speakers seem to be interested equally in spinning and unraveling. How do you think of these speakers and their personas in these poems?

Christopher Deweese I’m really interested in how titles and first lines create a context for a poem’s readers to understand and inhabit. I think part of the reason there are so many book-length sequences and “project” books being written and published these days has to do with context: if the book’s structure establishes some kind of context for the poems to fit inside, it takes some pressure off each individual poem in terms of the work they have to do to “make sense” or provide some sort of foothold for the reader. And of course some poets use biographical paratext to establish context. When readers know the poet was a soldier for many decades, many of them will bring a different contextual understanding to the stuff of the poems. Part of each poem’s “sense-making” will come from outside itself.

When I was writing the poems of The Black Forest, I had this desire for each poem’s title and sometimes also their first lines to be a) all the context a reader needs, but also b) all the information the speaker of the poem begins with. As the poems spin and unravel, as you well put it, their speakers are literally discovering the world they inhabit. I’m glad that you read them as dramatic monologues. I’m pretty sure that’s the way I think of them as well. Sometimes I think it is one character wearing masks, but I don’t know how much that matters. They are flimsy masks, and the character underneath is often also flimsy, which is a roundabout way of saying of course all the characters are, in fact, me. It should be obvious from this answer that a large part of my creative process is intuitive. I have a strong desire to write poems and books that are larger than my own experience and understanding of the world, but this makes me no less interested in truth, beauty, or magic than other poets, I hope. I do worry, however, that the lack of paratext around my book (no jacket copy explaining what the book is doing or how it is doing it) may confuse some readers who would like more orientation/framing to assist their entry into the poems. In the future, I will consider adding more signposts at the edges of such forests.

JC Did these speakers change or advance or become revised in specific ways as you moved from earlier manuscripts to The Black Forest?

CD This is the one manuscript I’ve written that I thought was not a “project” while writing it. I was just writing poems without much of a desire for overt thematic coherence. Of course, since the poems were written over a fairly short period of time (about two years) the furniture inside them establishes its own coherence: I was always looking at trees, afraid of bears, and exploring this tension between where I come from and who I have or have not become. I suppose also there is the trick of writing many more poems than can possibly fit in a book. I had this huge stack of poems I had written, and in selecting which poems to put in this book, I erred on the side of which poems felt the most consistent in terms of topic and approach when I finally came down to the “all the poems spread out on the floor” phase of manuscript assembly.

JC I notice too that the these poems evoke the frontier: there is cavalry, Indians, binoculars, wind, animals . . . Then, as if in opposition to these terms, I read lines like “the gravity / the tree tries not to believe in” and the attempt “not to remember / what is underneath the ground.” What is the pioneer-spirit to you in The Black Forest? Are these environmental poems? If so, how? What’s the Pioneer Valley to the poem “The Pioneer Valley”?

CD I grew up in a town called Port Townsend in Washington State, and the memory of the frontier still felt really fresh there in so many ways. It’s this absolutely beautiful place surrounded by water and mountains where the weather never gets too hot or cold, and almost anything seems to be able to grow there. However, the place also contains this really terrible history of greed and violence and environmental destruction, and more recently, of gentrification, class conflict, massive amounts of addiction, and economic stagnation. It’s an incredibly confusing place to me, a place of great beauty and great melancholy, full of ghosts and great blue herons. There’s actually a spot there that locals call The End of the World, a place atop a cliff that looks West, where the Strait of Juan de Fuca heads to meet the Pacific, and it does feel like the edge of something, and that can be both a beautiful and a desperate feeling.

The other place I’ve spent a good deal of time in my life is in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, where I have lived for six of the last eight years. I knew about this valley without knowing anything about it a long time before I moved here, thanks to the first two lines of the Pixies song “UMass,” which explains “In the sleepy west of the woody east / is a valley called the Pioneer.” The name itself reminds me that this place was also once the frontier, but here I know less of that history, and it feels that more time has passed between it and me. But in the way the pioneer spirit involves a sort of intentional seeking—of land, freedom, or community—I do feel a true zeal for this place where I have found a community that sustains me.

I suppose I often feel a tension between the feeling that I should do everything I can to understand the systems I inhabit and a desire to go towards the unknown, to blunder my way towards new systems, solutions, or attitudes. As an American, I think I’m constantly uncovering both the wonders and terrors of our history, pieces of which make their way into the frontiers of my poetry. At the same time, I want to strongly resist being didactic or relying on oversimplifications.

I keep thinking about Antarctica and Antarctic exploration. I’ve been obsessed with both for as long as I can remember. I think Antarctica is my favorite version (vision?) of the frontier. And here is an oversimplification but one that I think contains at least an inch of truth: while so much exploration has been synonymous with exploitation, fueled by greed and violence, exploration of the Antarctic frontier seems to have been much more of an aesthetic decision, fueled by personal, political, and scientific desire for discovery. I am enthralled by Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, in which he completely failed to set any records or discover anything first, but succeeded in something much more epically human, which was, over the course of three years and innumerable hardships, to keep all of his men alive, a strange greatness indeed in a wholly unforgiving, isolated environment. And a byproduct of this achievement is some of the most incredible, otherworldly film, photography, and writing I have encountered. Perhaps the quotes from my poems that you list in your original question have to do with a desire on my part not to disregard or forget history but to maintain an openness towards new possibilities that may help us transcend or grow past what we have been and what we’ve known.

JC I get that. Exploration seems like an apt analog for the poems. So, let’s talk about the forest of The Black Forest. You evoke it as an imaginative, unknowable space. The way these poems seem to owe to a process that is conscious of speech, idiom, narrative, and assemblage makes me want to draw an analogy between Jack Spicer’s imaginative rooms—specifically, something you mentioned earlier, his play with “the furniture in the room”—and your trees, etc. in the forest. I guess what I’m getting at is, what did you tell yourself (or, what did you find in the writing) were the things of this forest? Were there particular strategies you used to get the poems started or to keep them going?

CD I am extremely grateful to Spicer for his lectures and to Peter Gizzi for his work transcribing them and reminding the world of their existence. Spicer’s theory of dictation has profoundly influenced the way I compose my poems and my ability to read the poems that others have written. Like many, for some time in my life I thought of poems as puzzles whose purpose was simply to be decoded by their reader. Spicer helped me understand poems as records of consciousness in time and space. When I tried to read Wallace Stevens as an undergraduate, I felt stupid. Now, I laugh with glee and surprise. This is a good feeling!

When I was writing The Black Forest, there were no rules about what the things of the forest should be. Artistically, one of the things I find myself happiest about in the book is the way the poems veer between the imaginative and the personal. There is a lot of real feeling in the book, but that real feeling is not privileged over what can be imagined. It’s a messy combination, and I suspect it may make the book hard to categorize, but I find myself feeling that this is as close as I can get to my own experience of life, in which the real and imagined, the known and fancied, are always combining in dissonant harmonies.

To answer your last question, I mentioned earlier that, in beginning each poem, I was interested in what a title or first line can establish (for both the writer and reader). And I think the answer is: quite a lot! The other concern I know I really wanted to explore in these poems is what exactly a narrative poem is. And I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I was in such awe of Max Jacob’s poetry when I wrote this book, I wanted to attempt a similar level of narrative wildness and surprise almost as a form of better understanding his work and achievements. So I often found myself keeping the poems going by remaining as open as I could be to accident and discovery. I was always trying to remind myself to be wild and playful, to go further than I knew I could go. I am less interested in “write what you know” and more interested in “write what you don’t know you know.” It’s incredibly time-consuming to write this way; there are so many dead-ends and missteps (which Spicer mentions), and moments of complete futility abound. But I also like the work of it. It makes me feel both less special and more in control.

JC I guess in the dictum to write what you don’t know, you always also end up writing who you are. Do you see these poems being particularly tied to you being a young poet? Something I suppose I’ve recently gotten old enough to think about is the idea of poetry at different stages of life. Are there particular other writers you look toward in thinking about life stages, innocence, experience?

CD Thanks for this question! Writing outside what I know I know, I discover more of who I am than seems possible. You express this very eloquently in your first sentence. I do think of the poems in The Black Forest as having a youth to them, an exuberance in making and being made for their own sake that reminds me of the years in which I wrote them, years in which I was madly in love with a poetics of surprise and possibility, and the intoxicating power of declaring things. In writing the poems, I always was trying to surprise myself, to find some new territory—a new image, a new way (for me) of ending a poem, a new emotional pitch.

I think that part of coming to grips with the aging process lies in starting to understand and develop a feeling not unlike excitement about one’s ability to change, both personally and stylistically. A common experience of age is one of loss, right? Losing our hair, our good looks, our teeth, our carefree demeanor. Being involved in making things (in this case, poems) seems a good counterbalance to that. I feel confident that I have yet to write the poems that will mean the most to myself, and I believe that my whole life, I will keep on discovering poets who will complicate and enlarge my understanding of what exactly a poem is capable of.

JC Maybe now we can talk about the context of your work within contemporary poetry. I know you’ve been asked to what degree you consider your work “neo-surrealist,” so I’m wondering to what extent do you consider it conceptual? As I’m asking you about this, I’m conscious that I read your writing—and, my own writing, and much new poetry that I read and enjoy today—as mediating between various avant-gardes and more narrative or lyric forms. I’m talking about what has been called “elliptical poetry,” among other names. How much thought do you give to working between more conceptual, more “difficult” poetries like that of Spicer and more conversational, narrative poetries, such as what gets called “neo-surrealism?” Do you see this as part of your project? Are there different distinctions you find more useful to consider as poles to work between?

CD The problem with “neo-surrealism” is that it has become seemingly meaningless in terms of actually describing what a poet’s work is doing. Rather, the term seems weighed down with dismissive assumptions about intention and process. I’ve heard such work described as “first thought, best thought,” which manages to imply a compositional laziness and a complete lack of understanding about cognitive processes and choices. The other criticism is “randomness,” which is also a bit of a canard. We need computers to generate truly random sequences; even at our most associational, the furthest we can get from “sense-making,” our language is made up of Spicer’s furniture in the room. Finally, there’s this fear of fecundity, that “neo-surrealist” poets write too much, and therefore are not to be taken seriously. I think that many conceptual poets have just as much contempt for the work branded as “neo-surrealist” as people on the other end of the aesthetic spectrum do, and I think there are plenty of examples of poems that don’t work coming out of everywhere.

I have a heavy desire to be kind to my readers. Sometimes I suspect this could be seen as a weakness. And when I say be kind to them, I don’t mean patronize them. I want to trust them, to give them respect, because that is my favorite form of kindness. It’s possible that this inclination keeps me from being particularly difficult or conceptual. I don’t give too much thought to exactly where I am aesthetically. I do find myself being excited about writing in a physical location that also contains so many other poets who I think are doing good, interesting work, though. Spicer has a thing or two to say about this as well!

I think my work is conceptual in that it is concerned with breaking time and space.

The poles I work between seem to be sound, rhythm, sense, and emotion, all in three dimensions.

JC You mentioned Max Jacob as an influence. Is there a piece of his work, or someone else’s, that you could offer as instructional in these senses?


Then it’s true! Here am I like Philoctetes! abandoned by the ship on an unknown cliff, because my foot hurts. The unfortunate thing is that my trousers were torn off by the sea. Upon inquiry I find that I am nowhere else but on the shores of chaste England. “I shall soon find a policeman!” Which is what happened: a policeman who spoke French. “You don’t recognize me,” he said in that language, “I’m the husband of your English maid!” There was a reason for my not recognizing him: I never had an English maid: he led me into a neighboring town concealing my nudity with leaves as well as possible, and there he took me to a tailor. And, as I was about to pay: “Quite unnecessary,” he told me, “Secret fund of the police” or “Of politeness”: I didn’t quite catch the word.

—translated by John Ashbery

JC What, if anything, are you surprised that people ask you about in your writing? Are there focuses others find that surprise you?

CD I did a reading a few months ago, and afterwards, this person wanted to ask me why my poems are so full of despair. And that was a total surprise to me! First off, there was this insinuation that if despair exists in the poems, there is something “wrong” about that, or something to be apologized for. Secondly, I think despair is one of about twenty emotions that exist in pretty equal measures in this book. So, that threw me.

JC That’s interesting. People often remark about the sadness of contemporary literature of all sorts. And, it makes sense to me that simply looking around the way your poems do invites a sort of despair into the mix that may be otherwise absent in pop-culture. Any thoughts about the place of despair in poetry—its overabundance, its necessity?

CD I think it’s one pole, one tone among many, and like any tone, it’s easy to overdo it. But I mean look around! There is a lot to despair about. There is also a lot to celebrate, to hold on to. Poetry shows us that, no matter how awful our current situation is, this has always been the case. By which I don’t mean at all to understate the magnitude of our current problems. When I’m writing a poem, I feel completely empowered. I feel like I am building something alternate. Perhaps the danger of this is it turns into a simple escape, something personal and selfish. But I’d like to think and hope that writing poems and entering into that territory of creation and power helps to gird my social and political self; that this personal act sustains me and urges me towards a stronger, more neighborly way of existing in the world.

JC I know we both share a great fondness for Ted Berrigan, and I wondered if you might talk about what his work means to you as a poet and possibly how (to borrow from your recent Facebook status update) a poem like his “Red Shift” makes you want to “write larger.” I share this sentiment and would enjoy hearing you explain it if you don’t mind.

CD “Red Shift” is a spell. The recording of Berrigan reading it at Naropa moves me every time I listen to it. As the words leave his body, they become so large, larger than sense or self, though the poem makes perfect sense and is all about the self. I don’t want to do a close reading of the poem, but I am always struck by the way Berrigan uses time, how he starts out with that familiar trick of tethering the poem to a specific minute of origin before quickly beginning to cut between the remembered past and the known present, creating a platform from which he is then able to move into the future via the incredible visionary logic of the last twelve lines of the poem. He proclaims himself directly and powerfully and creates a kind of monument in the poem that is not just an image of himself, but an impression of what it is to be alive, to be performing and declaring through the time and space of life. When I read this poem, his teeth are inside my skull: I am saying him and understanding him simultaneously, and learning something very large in the process.

When I say that “Red Shift” makes me want to write larger, I mean that in it I find evidence that it is possible to write something simultaneously clear, visionary, imaginative, challenging, and emotional. I take great inspiration from this realization.

Jack Christian’s first book, Family System, is the 2012 winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from The Center for Literary Publishing.

Christopher DeWeese’s The Black Forest is available now from Octopus Books.