I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Poet Dean Young on his new collection Bender and making vehicles to another world.
In graduate school I took a class with Dean Young that pretty much saved my life. Amid coursework that seemed to have little relevance to the life of an artist, Dean’s class was crucial business. The books he assigned (Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, for instance), his challenging prompts (write a poem that makes no sense whatsoever), and some of his aphoristic classroom remarks (“The most vibrant forms are emergent forms”) still resonate with me today.
In a weird process of backwards detective work, I began reading Dean’s poetry to reaffirm a set of values I had but wanted more of. I understood immediately that I’d found a flexible skeleton key.
To read a Dean Young poem is to move quickly. The reader’s mind shoots through it like the steel ball in a pinball machine, dinging around, racking up points. Dean’s poems are amazingly fun; they’re stuffed with high-flown hilarity and a sorcerer’s orchestration of wild energy. Even better, they open to reveal a center that’s gorgeous and morally evolved. They’re practically advertisements for the best human causes: liberation, love, and the need to live life knowing its fragility and worth.
Around the time we met, Dean was diagnosed with a degenerative heart condition that worsened considerably over the years. By 2010 his heart was pumping at eight percent of its capacity. In April of 2011 he received a heart transplant.
I spoke with Dean and his new heart shortly before the release of Bender, a collection of selected and new poems, out this month from Copper Canyon Press. We discussed the definition of poetry, the function of the imagination, and other freely floating topics.
Dean Young There’s a goose honking somewhere around here.
Anthony Tognazzini That’s because the interview’s about to start. How are you feeling these days?
DY Alive, happy, and trying to get my writing legs under me after the blender I’ve been through. Since my transplant I’ve been listening to a lot of vintage Yes as a way of calling me back to myself. After all these years I’ve finally figured out how to hear “Soundchaser,” one of their most insane songs.
AT Can you record an a capella version and send it as an MP3? We’ll include it in the interview.
DY Have you heard that song? I’d not only have to hit the notes that Jon Anderson could in his prime but I’d also have to sing Steve Howe’s frantic guitar work.
AT My intention precisely. Let’s start by talking about discontinuity. Your poems are filled with sharp juxtapositions, leaps across subject, and conflicting registers and diction. Strangely, that discontinuity forms a web of connectedness and gives your poems a unified charge. By binding disparate elements you seem to fuse the world, calling attention to the connections. Can you say more about this project?
DY First off we have to recognize that discontinuity is a value judgment and carries with it a stigma connoting scattered, unfocused, pointless. But I have to insist that the notions of continuity that are behind that accusation of discontinuity are highly suspect and result not from any particularly keen or creative insight into either the nature of the world or art but are often the result of many rulers slapping many hands, the outcome of growing far too accustomed to being in harness. Continuity as usually represented is a bamboozle, consistency the triumph of insects. Everything we know about energy, about our thought and physiology, tells us we throb, our vision is a patchwork between the blackouts of blinks, our life and livelihood a pulse. It seems, according to physicists, that matter itself is either here or there, never in between, even the rock we smash against is an actuality composed of probabilities, everything is made of gaps and all our joys and injuries, all our philosophies and poems are synaptic. Jumps between here and there, metaphors afoot. A straight line, a linear progression, is a fiction and not even a very convincing one. There is no such thing as discontinuity because there is nothing that doesn’t belong, that doesn’t vibrate in this web of connection. Now is always unprecedented and sudden.
AT Right. There’s no such thing as discontinuity. Disregard that last question.
DY Let me try to answer more pragmatically. I make a poem out of what interests me: subjects, phrases, rhymes, blurts, philosophies, recipes, dreams, animals, everything I’ve stolen from other poems. To some extent my process is most often a combination of automatic writing and collage and as I make the poem I search for thematic trajectories and structural affinities that provide a connectedness. I want a poem to be a whole thing, and I believe in beginnings and endings but that doesn’t mean one is necessarily predicated on or obligated to the other in logical ways. A poem is a way of making sense and lots of things make sense, not just 2 + 2 = 4. 2 + 2 can = cake for the betterment of the poem. Formal devices can act as a glue, rhyme can make things comfortable together that wouldn’t find themselves in the same grocery store otherwise, stanzaic patterning can provide a grid of regularity to wild assortment and speed. That’s the best way to cross a stream on slippery, wobbly stones.
AT In your poems, assortment and speed always trump regularity. It seems you are ever-vigilant against the poem leveling out or becoming boring, even when it means changing the terms established in the poem.
DY When I am bored by poems, I am often bored because the poem is making a big deal about the Liberty Bell being in Philadelphia, when really the cause for celebration is that the Liberty Bell is on the moon and right here in my pocket. Connectedness is sexy and is most remarkable not when arranged but rather deranged. A poem that doesn’t go through changes of mood is a protected poem, very inexperienced, even naive. I like to live in a house as much as the next fellow, but I like lots of electrical outlets and windows. I look to art for the collaboration of life with materials and a corroboration that life is happening. Not a pile of sticks all broken to the same length. I want poems to give me a sense of the whorl and chatter of this world, its terrors and glees, its sheer unlikeliness. I don’t need a poet crossing guard. I want poems that achieve that surrealist goal of uniting representation and expression. I want excitement, and if some coherence needs to be sacrificed for the sake of avoiding the continuity of a corpse, so be it.
AT Let’s talk about your selection process for Bender. What criteria did you use? Poems that you felt achieved something new? Did you regard older work and more recent work equally?
DY Well, to begin with there are a handful or two of signal poems. Poems that at the time of writing them heralded new possibilities. Those poems may not particularly stand out to the reader because what those poems discovered would be mined more thoroughly in later poems. But those poems were the pivot points in my head, the poems I knew had to be in any representative overview. But beyond that it was going through each book and turning down the page of poems that I felt were the best embodiments of the particular gusts in my work. I don’t know if anyone else would see things the same way nor finally do I think that matters much. It was suggested to me by various people in various ways that I let someone else make the selections, but that seemed a postmortem solution. Not only did it strike me as far too big a task to assign anyone else—turns out I have been rather prolific, a condition that in our culture is looked upon very suspiciously in a poet—but frankly, I haven’t gotten to write the poems I do by listening to anyone else. So while I was lying in a hospital bed, I read through every one of my books, making initial selections, hoping to show as much variance and revealing continuity at the same time. As far as the new work goes, it just fit in.
AT The poems in Bender are arranged alphabetically. Why?
DY I decided on the ordering because I didn’t feel a chronological ordering by book made sense. There is no chronological order within the books after all, and many poems that were written to be in one manuscript were cut and then put in the next. Also the books do have a sort of integrity by themselves so by radically (dis)ordering the poems, I hope I’ve achieved something entirely different, that the conversations between poems makes each poem reverberate a bit differently than in its original context. The major change I think in my work was between my first and second book. I feel, in hindsight, that my first book is very careful, a bit tame. After that, and particularly with Strike Anywhere, I think I have the confidence when I’m writing to not give a damn, to be reckless. I hope the order of Bender increases that recklessness. I’m still worried that the best selected wouldn’t actually be ten pages long.
AT Did assembling the book provide perspective on your trajectory as a poet over the last 24 years? If Strike Anywhere signaled the coming together of several strains of your aesthetic, do you think your thematic and formal concerns have changed since then?
DY I don’t really see any linear development in my work, and that’s one of the reasons I ordered Bender the way I did: to get away from the notion of a step-by-step progression. There have been stylistic discoveries along the way, and certain poems are for me the initial signals of those possibilities, but everything in my poems seems to come and go. Approaches, methods of composition and construction, thematic concerns and formal approaches appear then disappear then reappear. For instance the “Lives of … ” poems, which, I think, were spread over three books. And I see no reason to feel that I’ve exhausted forever the strategies that those poems employed. Same with the Odes. I think and hope my work has gotten more sophisticated as time’s gone on, but I wouldn’t say there have been any major developments in regards to temporal order.
A personal curiosity is that nearly every poem in Bender was written with my old heart—I think there are only five poems in it written after my transplant—so that makes it seem like a somewhat fitting and timely marker.
AT I wondered about the condition of your heart and its effect on the work. Your poems, especially the ones written while you were perilously close to winking out, are full of speculation about emptiness, blankness, death, and the afterlife. At times, the anxiety is palpable. At others, as in the ending couplet of “The New Savagery” (“Why am I so afraid of nothingness?/My soul is a baby wolf.”) you exhibit great existential courage. Can you say a bit about these two poles and your perspective—now that you’re on less tremulous ground—on the beyond?
DY It’s funny, a lot of people have commented about poems they assume were written during that time when I was immediately involved with my heart failing and the likelihood of my death. But in most cases, that assumption is wrong—those poems came out of my ordinary procedures and considerations, and it is only the light thrown by the particularity of how things went that throws those shadows so suggestively. I’d been living with that heart, with the knowledge that that heart was seriously compromised and would get a lot worse, for some time. But really if you look back at all my work, even before I got a definitive diagnosis over a dozen years ago, the wondering about death, the sense of its non-presence, has always been there. Poetry is very much formally involved with endings: its primary characteristic, the line, is defined by its ending, so poems are really ending all the time. That’s a big reason to like them. I’m not saying that death is a literary device, but the terminal aspect of poetry often becomes conscious of itself and sometimes a stylistic aspect can become, can create the subject. I don’t think I have anything big to say about death other than there it is, and that seems mountainous enough. I can say though, from my recent first-hand experience, that it’s nothing to fear. I don’t know if, as Whitman says, it’s far luckier than we suppose but maybe, maybe.
AT I’m glad to know death’s nothing to fear. That’s useful. In her essay “On Fear,” Mary Ruefle says, “Conflict born of fear is behind our every action, driving us forward like the cogs of a clock.” This makes me think about the necessity, the inescapability, of fear in one’s life. I’ve spent a lot of my life running both toward and away from the things I fear (which are often the things I also love and want). What, I wonder, fills you with fear, and how are your running legs? Do your poems work to understand, exacerbate, or soothe these fears?
DY That quote from Mary’s essay has a real rhetorical authority, but I think it is wildly wrong on many levels. Certainly biologically it’s wrong, even for plants. And tactics of avoidance are incorporated into behavior in most sane people long before they reach the level of fear. The level of fearfulness she writes about seems like psychosis to me. Do I fear intense pain? Well, yes, enough not to take too many risks but that risk-taking avoidance doesn’t dictate my every action. Do I fear death? Not so much especially given my recent experience. I fear transitions mostly, I suppose. Loading the car for a long car trip, changing jobs, the first week of classes, new shoes—and that may be why transitions are so important to me in my work. I often create situations in poems where the transitions are vital even if I often believe that transitions are unnecessary and false. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like staring at waves because they each know how to make that transition between their crash and their withdraw with unquestionable grace. My life has not been ruled by fear and neither has my work. That sounds like a grand statement, but it isn’t. I think the opposite is far more inflated. We walk by abysses lined with cactus everyday—so what? Fear certainly has its gusts. I fear the mass extinction we are in the middle of; I fear my own physical demise and that of those I love. But it does seem pointless to fear the inevitable, doesn’t it? A waste of energy? Maybe I fear most wasting life but, oddly, writing poems—trying to write poems—is something I’ve always felt certain is not a waste of time.
AT I wonder if you intend your poems to have the effect you feel staring at waves. Do you see your poetry working (or not working) to answer existential and moral questions? I’m thinking of Duchamp’s little dictum “No solutions = No problems,” and wonder if the impulse to recklessness, to push at conventions until you get to a place without fear, goes hand-in-hand, in some way, with acceptance?
DY I don’t know about art answering any of life’s problems aside from, in the practice of making art, to help us actually inhabit life. And the appreciation of art, the participation in it (which is what is required of a reader, viewer, listener) is a cultivation of an availability to eruptive feeling, to the manifestation of the secret life in what surrounds us, what makes up our lives. That may cause as many problems as it solves, but art’s objective is to liberate us and sometimes the implications of those liberations can be a little ragged. I don’t like art that tries to distract me from the abyss with decorative handrails. I don’t really respond to art that has an obvious social/political agenda. Art is obligated to nothing. People for good and bad feel great obligations, but I often feel those obligations end up with poems that are over before they start. They are bound by their intentions so securely that the poet can’t really attend to whatever contrary, exploitative impulse the materials may hint at. We live in a time of countless illustrations. I don’t care if it does take a village—does that mean we need so many village explainers? So I guess I don’t think that I use my practice of writing to help me solve moral questions—in fact the notion seems laughable to me. I do know that writing poems reports something back to me, something far more truthful than any uncracked mirror. And one fights the battle to exist at all with the weapons one has—for me that’s my poems. But who is that who exists, and for whom? I suppose I’m rather shallow but hopefully in the way I once heard Ashbery say he was: shallow in a deep way. All the way through. Turtles all the way down.
AT I’m especially interested in your use of narrative. You employ narrative elements all the time: as structural scaffolding, as chutes and ladders for entrances and exits, and as binding agents between odd poetic elements. Some poems, like “Dog Toy” and “Side Effects,” read like erratic short stories. Can you say a bit about the function of narrative in your work and your relationship to it?
DY Narrative is a baggy concept. It accommodates anything from a baseball box score to the Iliad. Might it be possible we employ the term for any sequence of events that occur through time that seem to have some sort of relationship, a causal relationship even? Our language, albeit in spite of the Futurist attempt at words-at-liberty, makes a sequential sense—syntax is time passing so we could say any sentence or group of sentences is to some extent a narrative. Which pretty much makes the term useless. As divergent as my poetic practice is, I try to be alert to possible strains within drafts that signal modes of connection. For me those modes of connection certainly don’t need to be rational, logical, plotted, or telling a story. But any signal whatsoever I try to attend to and see as an opportunity, so sometimes I do end up using threads of traditional narrative, the scaffolding of story that can establish a stability, an endoskeleton. We could say that there is a narrative to these three words: brick, blood-drop, red feather which entails the passage from inert material to mortal flesh to a sort of avian/angelic possibility or we could say that what holds those things together is their redness. I try to be alert to as many possibilities of connectedness as I can simultaneously, even if one may undermine the authority of another.
AT I agree that narrative is a super loose term. Conventional narratives fill in the spaces, providing explanation and a lot of “getting Raoul into the elevator,” which is a line you once quoted to me from a Lynn Emmanuel poem. One nice thing about poetry is how it speeds that narrative up: it shows us how to excise the unnecessary and leap over gaps, making new sequences. That’s thrilling. Our sense of connection gets expanded and so does our sense of how connections happen, providing a valuable life lesson. What about the prose poem then? Why have you never flirted with it?
DY I kinda hate prose poems. The single defining characteristic of poetry is the line and the line affords an emphasis on musicality and content that is missing from prose. Prose poems had a revolutionary bad-boy quality for some French men over a hundred years ago but now they mostly strike me as being lazy. I think there are so many young poets writing prose poems now because writing on a computer gives no sense of finite possibility—writing just inhabits some sort of dimensionless space—good for conceptual art but not good from the manifestation of the corporal. And tick tock, baby. Time is always running out, and there is no better embodiment of the truth of mortality and all its attendant beauties than the poetic line. I hate the notion that poetry is the default definition for any damn piece of odd writing. I hate interesting writing; I love poetry. And poetry is poetry because it asserts itself as poetry in some way or ways that are in conversation with the conventions of poetry that go back a long, long, long time. Prose comes very late to the party after all. I read prose when I’m falling asleep. No one sings in prose. I did write one prose poem though, “Dead Leaves in a Swimming Pool,” which is about poetry, the form being intentionally ironic.
AT I feel foolish taking up this topic with you, Dean, but I have to quibble on the definition of poetry here. If something is “poetic” it has a certain quality of illumination, insight, mystification, and enchantment. A work that achieves this effect doesn’t have to be lineated. It doesn’t even have to be a piece of writing. It can be a song, painting, sunset, gas station, or hatchling. So while “poem” may name a form, “poetry” is something ineffable that can pop up anywhere, including prose poems. Also, there are plenty of musical prose writers. Lots of singing. Maybe it depends on the kind of music you like, and music sounds better to you in poems, which is cool, but poetry belongs to everyone, buster!
DY I guess what rankles me is in a culture that in many ways has no use for poetry, so many things are said to be poetry. Certainly the quality of the poetic can be ascribed to anything anyone wants to, which means next to nothing except there’s something about what is being referred to that exceeds the bounds of its usual self, I suppose. But to call anything that isn’t poetry poetry flounders the specificity of the word. We may not be able to come up with a definition of poetry that includes all manifestations of it, but once we start saying things are poetry that aren’t made of words composed to particular effects somewhat exclusive to words we’re making a muddle. But go ahead. And why not call a book a cloud? A boat a door? A river a ballet? In every class we can make a kind of sense out of those statements (they are, I suppose, poetic), but I don’t think much is being illuminated. It also strikes me as funny how many times claims are made for prose being poetry when one thing’s for sure, no one ever makes claims that poetry is prose except as a negative comment. My wife got a catalog recently called Poetry—she got a nice shirt from it. It was also full of prose.
DY Okay, I can see there’s something sour in my responses so far. It does rankle me a little when people makes claims that things are poetry that aren’t poetry but really if someone’s primary experience with poetry is through an éclair, who am I to discount it? Bully for them. I also feel that when I read in a review that a work of prose is poetic (only luminous is worse), it means the reviewer is ducking the real work of description and instead gesturing towards some vague, indeterminate qualities that when you get down to it nobody’s going to agree on. Can anything be poetry? I feel that the answer has to be no for the word to have any meaning whatsoever. Can anything be poetic? Well maybe the same way nearly anything can be spray-painted. But honestly, only the human tongue nailed to the sky with tiny golden nails is poetry. Okay, we also have to include the heart inside a burning tree of thorns. And something jellyfish-like that I’m still trying to get my hands on. But what brings people to poetry, makes them write it or convinces them they are in the presence of it, is so various, so heterogeneous, that one finally must bow down or be the sort to take up the villager explainer’s flaming sword. I have no desire to be a critic and in fact I think and believe the time of the usefulness of critics to poets isn’t now. There are still plenty of people sitting down with their notebooks welcoming some cluster of words that may be purely clutter but are composed upon the green tip of the moment, a moment that many have stated was worn out in the 19th century but doesn’t seem so to me. I suppose that the fact that poetry exists at all is such a humbling miracle that the fact that it goes on existing, and—gasp—in a plenitude beyond any single reader’s survey, is rather overwhelming. Almost as bad as sunrise which is clearly out to kill us. Some people will always be thinking having a pulse is an unforgivable cliché, though.
AT Let me just say one thing more on this heinous definition of poetry topic, and we’ll drop it for good. One beef I have is that a lot of poetry doesn’t seem to serve the purposes of poetry at all—in fact, in its clunkiness, predictability, belabored nature, and the sheer boredom it inspires, a lot of poetry is the opposite of what might be called “poetic.” Of course, the same can be said of 98% of waking life. Which is why, it seems to me, we must cherish the poetic as an experiential phenomenon and cling to the tongue-nailed-to-the-sky moments where we find them, whether those moments involve visiting the bank or driving to work or eating a clam. And we must also cling to meaningful poetry to which—let’s face it—the full-time job of being poetic falls.
DY This discussion has led us to some weird terrain, in which I’ll insanely admit that most poetry probably isn’t very poetic. Which is like saying not many rhinos are rhino-like, many crows not very birdlike. Only sleep is consistently interesting anyway.
AT I agree. How about this: Is being you like living in a giant Dean Young poem?
DY My iPod’s always on shuffle, and I find life, in general, simultaneously utterly poignant and utterly absurd. Don’t you?
AT Of course, but where’s that feeling from? In a lot of your poems there’s a yearning for, or an attempt to get to, some lost, grand, unified something. “In the beginning, everything is mingled and joined/all the halves hooked up/nothing reft or twain, no missing buttons,/no single baby shoes lying on the off-ramps” from “Tribe:” or the ending of “Original Monkey:” “As if back there somewhere/was something immense and intact.” Do we suffer from a lost state of grace? Is a life of dividedness, of being separate from the sublime, our curse? Or is it a blessing because it helps us aspire to a condition of meaningfulness?
DY The big metaphysical question about poetry trying to get us back into contact “with a world of undivided light,” to use Bob Hass’s term for it—my initial response is that’s right, the desire for connection and when disparate things are connected, that’s one of the ways the mind experiences pleasure. But I also think that much of art is about the business of interruption. It may be that our senses of continuity are dulling senses, inhibiting, and it is only through interruption that we can feel the world in its true eruptive glory. There’s nothing that does a better job at making itself up as it goes along than reality, but there are gaps in the process. Only death after all is continuous, and it might not be either. Isn’t that what religion promises us, that death is a phase and continuity is either an inferno or a paradise, but it is not the life we’re living. I am certainly not against telling lies, and it may be that the lie of continuity we tell ourselves is necessary for sane and coherent survival. The illusion that our actions have logical repercussions may be a vital fabrication in order to live a moral life. But doesn’t a lot of art make us look into the rip?
So how about a question for you? What do you think the major obstacles to the imagination are?
AT Almost everything about the structure of our society acts as an obstacle. As children we experience a burst of purely imaginative life, but the spark is squeezed out of us by socialization, the pressure to conform, rote forms of education, standardized exams, the idea of adulthood, a pressure to make practical decisions, the expectation that we’ll take jobs we don’t necessarily want, that we’ll make money, that we’ll contribute to society, which means contributing to the economy by buying things, becoming addicted to material consumption and ceaselessly spending the money we earn on things that have no real relevance to our lives, making the measure of our “worth” as humans a monetary one, or a status symbol naming same. Also, of course, there are the ubiquitous barriers of popular culture, Top 40, TV, video games, the Internet, and social networking sites, which some might argue are tools for the imagination, and I suppose they could be if one used them imaginatively, but when does one? More often these media seem to inhibit the interior work needed to inhabit the imagination fully, their glitzy, easily accessible lights distract us from the deeper and more difficult pleasures of creative thought.
But whatever. The more basic truth is that as humans we’re hardwired for day-to-day survival, and rigged to think, for the most part, in those terms. A life lived at the fever pitch of creative vision would be kaleidoscopic and glorious, sure, but also overwhelming and dysfunctional, making the accomplishment of daily tasks impossible. (As you once wisely said, “You don’t want a surrealist driving you to the airport.”) Art’s function, it seems, is to create a disarrangement of these practical patterns in a way that allows us to see beyond the mundane, to unbutton the right pushovers for a big-picture understanding, even if only for a dreamy instant. Our brains may return to the mundane then, out of habit and necessity, but at least we have the residue of that breakthrough inside us, a reminder that we’re not slaves to some reductive reality, and that’s reason enough to celebrate. Meanwhile, art, with its transformative capability, is always there for us, waiting, inviting that celebration. Of course, if your daily, practical task is to make art, then you’ve got a unique and challenging job in navigating between the modes of existence. My own aim is to create that disruption—the move from the mundane to the imaginative—as often as possible, so that when I’m not working directly with the imagination I can follow its light like a little beacon, letting it illuminate my dim and regular way.
DY Couldn’t agree with you more. We crave that sort of disruption. Call it breakthrough or paradigm shift, the presence of the imagination always comes as a break and great poems often reveal, demonstrate that break. It isn’t really consistency that art is after, although I think Ashbery has found a way to make an imaginative state somewhat consistent, which may account for how strange his work seems to people. That deep sense of recognition that we search for in art is usually a sudden plummet or soaring and art I think can contextualize that rupture within itself—that trauma is a surrealist ideal. And a good first step is through the recognition of the fundamental irrational fact of our lives, that they end, must end, which can only be fathomed suddenly. I also think that this awareness can’t be sustained (except by a few higher beings/spirits). Maybe the imagination is what brings forth truths that cannot be held in the mind, can only be felt like feathers and fire on the face. Maybe too we spend the greater energy of our imagination on denial.
AT Huh. Are you suggesting that, for practical purposes, we imagine ourselves away from the imagination? That because an awareness of the greater, flashing truths—our mortality, the telescope of time, our fundamental connection to others and the world—is unsustainable we must deny those truths, imagine them to be not true? Because living that trauma on the regular would be too great and messed-up-making? Is the imagination equipped with an auto-stop device to prevent its natural tendency to overload? A Darwinian editing/processing switch that allows us to get dressed in the morning? That would make sense. The more that switch is flipped, the further away the idea of “normal” becomes. Few people are less fit for conventional doings than artists.
DY That makes a lot of sense to me and is very well put. It may be that living in an imaginative state is the same as living in a primitive state, one ruled by the whims of obscure gods, gusted with unassailable pleasures and torn open by corpuscular terrors, one right in the middle of the blast furnace of the sacred. But that depends upon a present overwhelming awareness of the unknowable and fabricating the knowable allows for control, survival, progress. We know now where the gazelle lie down so we can sneak up upon them. We know what this seed contains and where these waters lead and the opposite-smell of fire is snow-coming. I am not saying that the triumphs of the rational mind, of the creation of cause-and-effect relation isn’t fundamentally imaginative, nor that the glories of technology aren’t imaginative, but much of that triumph has led to the notion of the imaginary as being something that is false, discarded with maturity because it produces no material result. So after years of condemning and destroying the forest, of our war on twilight and dawn and war on night, we wonder why we’re waking up in a desert. That’s why in art the presence of the imagination has become so disruptive and primitive, engaged often in first-mindedness. The rational intellect, so evolved and rewarded with stunning successes, with footprints on the moon and cures for TB, is now fitting too snugly over our minds like a too-small helmet, and it requires antlers to get through it. Our explanations are so powerful we’re suffering from the anemia of having replaced the world with explanations of the world. We need mystery in our lives, it is the presence of love: we need the beauty of the splash. We’re not just turkey necks used for crab bait, are we? We’re not math either. The imagination is the vital extra, the extravagance of the flower’s throat as well as the poverty of the weathered barn door. It is counterproductive, insurgent, undemocratic, and unownable, but a true comfort.
AT Your poems reflect this interruption by flitting between the knowable and the unknowable in an overt way. The rational mind works in the poem through the use of scientific facts or concrete details that locate us in the recognizable world, but then disruptions in tone and imagery, abrupt changes in direction, send us wheeling with arms outstretched toward something unreachable. You also often use a kind of meta-commentary that mirrors the reader’s own movement through the poem, pointing out “a fucked-up, drawn-out metaphor,” or instructing the reader not to “confuse size with scale,” or explaining how one may “solve an equation but behind it lurks another equation.” This commentary seems, momentarily, to identify a moment of rational understanding, but this too is disrupted as the forces of the poem detonate, sending up debris and creating holes through which we glimpse the moon. I wonder how intentional this back and forth is as a formal device for you, or is it just the good old schizophrenic human mind at play?
DY I suppose the movement you’re talking about, and the meta-commentary, has to do with the moving spark, the neurotransmission between the conscious and whatever we want to call that which is un: the dream, the subconscious, the imagination, inspiration. Basically it reflects the idea of trying to make the poem larger, of including those moments when my on-going perplexed state of “What the fuck is this poem about” counters itself with an answer. In general, I think most poems fail when they have too many guard rails, that we’re living in a time of nothing but guard rails but sometimes when we’re trying to find our way into the waterfall in flight from the inferno they can be helpful even if a bit silly. So it’s part of a process resulting from my sense that in poetry lack of control is as imperative as control, and an art that is completely one or the other is dull. (And I suppose temperament has a bit part in how much of one or the other seems right—I know I cannot only tolerate but need a fair amount of disorder.)
AT I can see that.
DY One does like to know what holiday it is when all these skyrockets are going off, but the more well-constructed the box, the more I want to see a messy heart in it half-hatched and beating, not the corpse in rouge. I think a lot of contemporary poetry is corpses in rouge. That explains to some extent how appalled I am of all the “tinkerer’s workshop,” “right tool for the right job” how-to books that come out. Even the phrase “workshop” raises my hackles a little because it implies far too much knowability. We’re not making furniture; we’re making vehicles to another world.
AT We’re always trying to manage creativity, to get a handle on the process, when its essence is rooted in not-knowing. There’s no handle to reach for, really. We have to open our hands, to let go, which explains the imagination’s auto-stop. When we start to fall, our need to clutch kicks in.
Then again, maybe it’s the switching back and forth we referred to earlier that makes the process work at all. We might never try to fly without the firm ground we’re stuck on. In order to go forward, maybe we have to come back. So that we may go forward again. So that we can come back.
DY Yes … I think it is the back and forth that we crave. We want to leave the world, but we want the world there to make our leaving of it stupendous, marvelous. So we have to keep coming back to touch it. Establish a pivot foot. But a problem is when the pivot foot becomes an anchor and there is no launch, there’s only a sad lurch like an insect stuck in the goop of its own smashed limb. Metaphor works this way I think; its power comes from congress with the other, a leap toward it. The phone rings in the middle of the night, and we answer. You’ve won, says the unknown voice. I’ve been thinking too of an analogy with music, how listening to the pure imagination of improvisation I often don’t feel more than astonishment until a hook comes in, a melody and then I FEEL something. The melody may be the presence of what isn’t imagination. I’m thinking particularly of how in the Koln Concert you can heart Keith Jarrett listening and searching with astonishing, marvelous, explorational command and then there it is, like the surrealist’s naked woman in a forest, a melody, and it feels like the heart is being wrung out like a rag. So the imagination allows us both the means of escape but as importantly, maybe even more importantly, the means of return, as Breton says, “always for the first time.”
AT First-time freshness every time! Are you getting closer to first-mindedness in your own poems? Is the process itself growing more unknowable to you? What will you future poems look like, I wonder? Pure steam? Pure steam with teeth?
DY I’ve been writing poems for a long time now, trying to and I still don’t know how to do it but, as I’ve said before, I just want to not know how to do it better and better.
AT Does that require genius? Do you rely on that quality?
DY I definitely don’t think I’m a genius.
AT What about the concept, though? Does it exist, in your view? What is it? A rare arrangement of neurons? Or are we all born geniuses? Is it just a question of time (i.e. what the genius can do immediately takes me at least 10 years)? I’m not sure what I’m asking here, but I’m curious about the idea of genius because it seems that poetry tries—via insight, complexity, intelligence, impact—to illuminate the reader like the moment of genius, to make brilliant.
DY I do believe that genius is in some people a fixed quality. Leonardo. Shakespeare. That sort of genius that seems to exceed human possibility. But I also believe in the genius that visits itself upon us momentarily, briefly or in stretches, something like inspiration itself. And there’s a spooky quality to that, at least a quality beyond our control. Sometimes it can be aided by groups as I have seen happen in writing workshops. Sometimes it can be welcomed by the daily ritualized activity of getting to work. One thing is for sure: as writers we all get to collaborate with a genius—the language. I don’t think it is subject to the laws of thermodynamics—it can be created and destroyed. Maybe it just seems like what a genius could do in a second takes you 10 years when maybe taking 10 years is the genius part.
Anthony Tognazzini has new work appearing or forthcoming in Guernica, Crazyhorse,Gigantic, Forklift, and TriQuarterly. His fiction collection, I Carry a Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such as These, is available from BOA Editions. He lives in Brooklyn.
Dean Young has taught at Iowa, the low-residency program at Warren Wilson, and currently holds the William Livingston Chair of Poetry at the University of Texas-Austin. His nine poetry books include Strike Anywhere (1995), Pulitzer Prize finalist Elegy on Toy Piano (2005), and Fall Higher (2011), as well as a book on poetics entitled The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction. He’s received a Guggenheim, an NEA grant, and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee