My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
“I don’t know about prescience, but I do think that poetry has for a long time been interested in the opposite of purity, the idea that poetry is linguistically promiscuous and poets are impure in terms of their appetite for language.”
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
The third week of August: historically, it’s the week when New Yorkers blow town. Air conditioners rattle and spit and give out, and windows are open wide, as if the rolled glass of the tenements would melt in the white sun. But New York is different now. The air conditioners work better, the windows are double-paned. Hot air spews into the streets, making the city an abandoned Martian metropolis, but everywhere inside it is cool. Almost everywhere. Ann Lauterbach—lifelong New Yorker and the author of five collaborations with artists, one book of essays, and eight books of poetry (including the 2009 National Book Award finalist, Or to Begin Again )—meets me in my grossly under-air-conditioned Crosby Street office. The window unit has declared war, apparently, with our digital recording device.
Lauterbach greets me warmly, though she has no idea what to expect; I have planned a series of questions and follow-ups to questions that I hope will give some articulation to not only Lauterbach’s poetry, but her longstanding involvement in the arts, and her expectations of our swiftly evolving era.
I confess my worries about the digital recorder—that the air-conditioner is overpowering it, that I don’t know how to work it—and we begin.
John ReedSo here we are on Crosby Street; you grew up in New York and lived downtown as an adult. Do you remember anything in particular about this building or this block?
Ann Lauterbach I was thinking as I was walking here: was my old friend Jan Hashey’s loft on this block? Then there’s that wonderful restaurant on two floors that’s still here, Savoy. Joe Brainard lived on this block on Greene Street. Why are you asking me about Crosby Street?
JR Just setting the scene. (laughter) In your poem “Ants in the Sugar,” who is that man walking along the road?
AL Every morning where I now live, in Germantown, New York, a gentleman walks by. He walks down to the river and then he walks back. I think he lives around the corner. I don’t know who he is, but he’s become familiar. So, I don’t know the answer to who that man is.
JR And who is that young girl in a pink dress?
AL I think the young girl in the pink dress is, in a literal sense, the daughter of a woman I know named Ivy. But the man and the girl are ubiquitous figures in the work, especially the girl. And she moves around; now for several books there’s been a girl. She came into the poems around the time of my sister Jennifer’s death in the mid-’80s, and carries ideas of both loss and possibility. I think of her as an avatar.
JR I wanted to ask about undead zombies and the newborn dead. These are recurring themes in your book Or to BeginAgain and also very current in popular culture this past season. What do you think explains the fascination and what is yours?
AL I suppose it must be an anxiety around the possibility that technology is going to outstrip the human. Maybe that’s myanxiety, but I think there might be a general fearfulness about that possibility. But also exhilaration, as if maybe we could resign from our human-ness and let zombies take over. To pull this around to my interests, it’s something in which the imagined has got some ground. My work circles around mortality and an unwillingness to let go of the dead. Or maybe a desire to make a distinction between the living dead—zombies, that’s to say people that don’t feel fully alive—and the dead, who for me often are fully alive in the imaginative sense. I walk around with a lot of dead people in me.
JR I have a follow-up question along those lines. Who are the dead and who are the forgotten?
AL There’s always an elastic space within language itself and there’s a gathering of the dead in my own life. Both my parents died when I was quite young and my sister when she was quite young; I lived as a teenager with my aunt and uncle, who had seven children, five of whom died in various stages of youth. These deaths had a profound effect on my sense of precariousness. There’s also a powerful consciousness of the dead who are not mine. In the case of this book, the dead who are not mine are particularly the war dead. That’s fairly consistent in the work—a need to acknowledge or come to an understanding of this. Sometime after this book came out, I realized that a lot of the work from the beginning has a nearness and a far away-ness, that those spaces are flipped back and forth very quickly, even within a few lines. That ties into a sense of history but also the notion of one’s own intimate familiars and those of others. There’s a kind of space there that is active for me. The title poem of Or to Begin Again circulates around this near-far idea. It was written after a young woman, nine months pregnant, the wife of one of my colleagues, was killed in a car accident. The baby was saved. I had never even met this woman. But the community was profoundly shaken and I found myself in a kind of vortex of emotion that had to do with this here-there, near-far. When I watch the News Hour with Jim Lehrer and they put up pictures of young persons who have died in the Iraq and Afghan wars, I’m conscious that each of them has a set of familiars whom I don’t know and never will. So there’s a sense of how local and how private grief is. The work creates an elastic space between the near and far, which interests me because it’s a spatial as well as temporal idea.
JR I’m going to shift around a bit, although I do want to come back to this. My next question is also on the political side. When we bailed out the failed institutions of the economic collapse, did we miss our chance at revolution?
AL (laughter) When I’m feeling quite exhilarated by the possibilities of politics in America there’s a piece of me that thinks we don’t have to worry about capitalism anymore because it’s doing a very good job of self-destructing. What an excellent, huge relief to just watch it tank! As if it were an “it” and not attached to persons who are doing specific things in the name of profit. We probably did miss an opportunity, but revolution is kind of a scary concept. I think change is usually gradual, an accumulative thing. I agree with what Richard Rorty says about new vocabularies changing the way we are, how we behave and how we think. I think slowly we are getting a new vocabulary. We need one really badly. So that’s exhilarating for somebody as logocentric as I am. I think the public—and I include myself in the public—is having a hard time understanding why these banks and huge firms had to be saved. It’s not clear what’s happening on the local level for people who lost jobs and homes. So there’s that disparity right now, while the stock market already seems to be happy again. I’m extremely anxious about politics, because I would really like this new president to have a shot at making a difference in the vocabulary. And I’m dismayed that the political right has refused to be interested in facts—that’s their bread and butter: indifference to facts and an almost phobic response to thoughtfulness. But I still find it staggeringly terrifying to have a phrase like “death panel” come into the vocabulary, circulate, and become a reality. Why can’t we the people, who are not so indifferent to facts, find phrases that are less contaminated and memorable enough to be taken up?
JR They’re not as thrilling, I suppose. And writers like to say things that are unpleasant, so they hear something that appalls them and repeat it 400 times.
AL That’s true, we have seen that! Not just writers—the media, right? But still, it’s not sexy, “death panel.” It’s not a sexy idea. And yet for those who catch onto these phrases it is sexy in a vulgar, promiscuous way. Everyone gets to repeat it—on the left and on the right—and it becomes something with a life of its own. Terrifying.
JR There’s a Biblical line “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” being used on ads in the LIRR. Are there sections from the Bible that you think of specifically?
AL No, but when I was young my mother read from the Bible. She wasn’t religious but she loved certain sections for the poetry, the language, and when I was in college I took an astonishing course on the Old Testament. I mean, really: I was astonished_. At that moment, I had a kind of awakening of intellectual consciousness that affected me very deeply—the language in relation to ideas and beliefs. So that has stayed with me. The phrase “is it nothing to you”—from the Book of Lamentations—is written on the side of a building I have seen from the Amtrak train heading north up to New Haven and Boston and back down. But like Alice in my poem “Alice in the Wasteland,” I misread it many times as a statement, not as a question: “_It is nothing to you, all who pass by.” Then one recent trip I realized it was a question; that made such an extraordinary difference.
JR What do you think the difference is?
AL Well, it’s an indictment of the worst kind, a sign of indifference and self-absorption, maybe even a disdainful or contemptuous message from a God: “It is nothing to you,” you know, as in “leave me alone.” It’s the side of humans that is full of indifference, if it’s possible to be “full of” indifference. “Is it nothing to you?” is the opposite, a call to make it—whatever “it” is—something to you. I find that difference between question and statement potentially at the core of an aspect of my poetics: to lead with the question and not with the statement. When I began to write I tended toward statements; perhaps I thought poems were meant to generate statements. But I later made an agreement with myself that the statements would have to come through an open questioning space within the poem; the statements would have to be a result of the internal workings or materials within the poem.
JR Looking back at your earlier books, there seems to me to be more of a tendency toward roundness. The newer work is more jagged—even shaggy in parts—resisting containment. Is it a struggle against containment or something else?
AL I think in the early work I had a received idea about poems as being contained, even essentialist, vessels. But my temperament isn’t like that at all; my temperament is ragged, diffuse, and messy. This messiness is one way of creating a habitat of possibility—shaggy is a nice word—as if all the edges were frayed. I came to a place where I wanted poems to act more like constellations, brief moments of perception or consciousness. These living fragments are interesting to me because I think this is really the way life is. If you’re alert, it’s not so bad to live inside a set of living fragments as opposed to something with an ordained, formal, narrative whole. But my work is dialectical; it goes back and forth between a desire for consonance and an equal desire for a transient dissonance, for furtive shifts. All those things I find unbelievably exciting. I think this aspect of my work probably annoys people—they don’t know how to make sense of it. (laughter)
JR What is New York City to poetry?
AL Well you could ask what is any city to poetry. One of the ways you could talk about modernism is to center it on cities and to see the interesting things that happened in the arts—in St. Petersburg, Paris, London and finally New York. There is a way in which the urban set contradicts the natural set, right? We know this; it’s a truism. In my ideal New York there are always chance operations at work; you don’t know what’s around the next corner—incipience, fortuitous accidents, the tragic, the terrifying. That puts you, as a poet, on your mettle in terms of how and how quickly language might respond to any kind of event. For my generation I suppose Frank O’Hara was the figure that captured that sense of possibility and rapid conjunction; he’s our Baudelaire, the one who makes the urban into a personal and cultural dance of observation and response.
JR Dedications and acknowledgements are an important part of your writing.
AL I suppose so. On one level it’s a way to address loneliness. Dedications make a kind of imagined community. My work is almost always conditioned by specific responses. The generating spaces are often plural, combinations of responses to an exhibition, a reading, a lecture and so on. Dedications to individual persons maybe have to do with a sense that the reading experience is singular and unique, just as the experience I might be responding to is singular and unique. The poems are always trying to walk the line between singularity and multiplicity. You know, an acknowledgment that any audience or public is made up of individuals.
JR Is there an art of dedication?
AL Well, to be dedicated is also to be committed, and I think there’s an art of committing to commitment. You have to be very careful when you dedicate that you’re not doing it for reasons except those that are very true to your habitat. When I dedicated the selected poems to three poets from the generation before me—John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, and Kenward Elmslie—I felt completely fine about that, because I knew each of them personally and each had given my work a distinct possibility. So it was a no-brainer. It was a way of making claims for them, not for myself. The dedication commitment is also about acknowledging those who surround you, who have been part of you. I don’t really understand what it is not to want to do that. Some dedications of individual poems are to honor the connective tissue between event and memory.
JR Turning back to Before Recollection, I think of the line “Another person from college dies, leaving us unchanged but fewer.” Is poetry haunted?
AL It’s a subtle question, because you could answer it in so many different frames. The other day I was talking with a very good friend—the poet and translator Stacy Doris—about a section of contemporary poetics embracing the Internet as the generator of form. I said something kind of sarcastic about how easy it is to mistake technology for knowledge as opposed to technology as technique, another way to think about the relation between knowing and making, about forms or methods. The Internet is certainly part of a new vocabulary. Anyway, she said, “Poetry is really about loss.” Well, maybe it is. What does it mean to be haunted? I’m not sure I really believe this, but at a certain moment in my lifetime, people were interested in what poets were doing—not necessarily in what they were saying but in what they were doing. In how they were going about making things, because it had some relevance to the way in which one might think about living. I think that’s stopped. So, in that general cultural sense, yes, poetry is haunted. It’s lost from a larger cultural discourse in some fundamental way. I remember working for a publishing house in New York when I was young, and seeing T.S. Eliot’s death announced on the front page of the New York Times. It had nothing to do with whether I was ever going to be on the front page of the New York Times, but I just remember the fact of it, that it was newsworthy, something the culture should notice. For me, this is some of the haunting.
JR Do you have any banned words?
AL Banned words? No, I don’t think I do. In the ’70s I sent some poems to Robert Bly, who was the editor of a magazine called The Seventies, and he sent them back; he didn’t like my work at all. He talked about the dry, Latinate phrases that I used and recommended that I use more words from Romance languages and get away from abstractions. It stuck with me, like any harsh criticism does, but it didn’t stop me from using dry, Latinate words.
JR Tribeca in the late ’70s and ’80s: what stays with you from that time?
AL A sense that artists could understand themselves as workers. It was a wonderful moment when communities, first in Soho and then in Tribeca, felt like workers—it’s the only way I can put it. Finding a place to live and work that was cheap enough to afford, and making a neighborhood happen, was hugely powerful, a kind of buoyancy of the local. Which I miss. You don’t get it in the rural American setting at all. It’s really about passing people on the street; it isn’t about anything less simple than that. A kind of way in which you could walk along and have a sense that you were part of a tribe of persons who understood what they were doing and why they were doing it. It was exhilarating. We felt like we had won the lottery. We were very serious, but there was an amused irony about it, a self-consciousness and gleefulness, like we got away with something. And then—really importantly, I think—came the feeling of being invaded. It was like living in some other country and understanding what it is to be aggressed, for people to come and take over your frail habitat.
JR It seems to me that many of the commonalities we see today in language—rhetorical mish-mash, for example—were presaged by poetry I heard in the ’80s.
AL The mish-mash of language?
JR Well, then it seemed like insanity to put a set of language from science, let’s say, against another set of language from aviary studies. You heard poems that were mixing together very diverse rhetorics. Now, you do any Google search and you see it in the same page. Most every web page will have this multiplicity of languages.
AL I don’t know about prescience, but I do think that poetry has for a long time been interested in the opposite of purity, the idea that poetry is linguistically promiscuous and poets are impure in terms of their appetite for language. Think about Pound’s The Cantos, for example, full of wild quotation and citation. But I think maybe there’s a difference between a free-for-all collision course and a more accountable interest in different rhetorics or discourses. I don’t know … I don’t want to be stuffy about it.
JR Do you see evidences of it in pop culture?
AL Of radical differentiation?
JR I’m thinking of this book that just sold something like 600,000 copies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a small press book; that’s the brilliant part of it. It was definitely something I could imagine some artist or poet printing in 1979 and distributing by Quip machine or something.
AL Pop culture is really alert to what’s going on, and why shouldn’t it be? That’s what makes it pop culture. I’m, alas, not clued in about pop culture, except that I like watching television and I like thinking about what’s going on there. I got completely addicted to American Idol, for example, so I have some of that energy in me. But American late moderns gave up making distinctions between high and low, right? There’s not much point in doing that, in this culture particularly, and that’s part of its richness. I don’t like that word, richness … its variety, variousness.
JR Is writing poetry in itself a political act? I’m also wondering if your thoughts on this, over time, have modulated.
AL You have to be careful with this question because you can get yourself into some—
JR What’s the scrape?
AL What’s the scrape? Uh, a sort of pridefulness or a sloppy idea of what politics really is. I think it’s extremely privileged to write poetry, and I mean privileged in a pretty profound sense. It has nothing to do with money; it just has to do with the privilege of doing it. There’s a vanity in imagining that to write poetry is to be subversive or inherently political. I think there is an interesting possible relationship between a given person’s poetics and her or his politics. And I’m interested in a non-overt idea of politics in my poetics, maybe a consciousness of social reality or political reality, and I don’t think work is interesting unless it has some aspect of that consciousness. I don’t think I really answered your question, but at least it was a half-answer.
JR The evasion is more interesting than the answer. (laughter) This probably reflects my misunderstanding of the current economic situation, but to me, they gave all the money back to the bankers and took it away from the arts.
AL Well, I don’t think it was a quid pro quo; arts didn’t have any money in the first place. I’m hoping that Obama’s administration is interested in the arts. Why wouldn’t it be? If you have somebody who’s interested in education, one hopes that part of the education is art. It was in my time. It was in your time, wasn’t it?
JR I went to P.S. 41. There were 40 kids in my class. Schooling in New York City was mostly just propaganda.
AL Really? Too bad.
JR I did my best at writing this question, but I mangled the thought a little. There is a flight of fancy á la “Alice in the Wasteland,” a poem from your book On a Stair: “A Clown, Some Colors, A Doll, Her Stories, A Song, A Moonlit Cove.” A future direction? I sense some momentum there.
AL I don’t know how to think about future directions. “Alice in the Wasteland” was very liberating for me. The terms in it are terms that have been around for a long time in my work—the place between wonder and waste. That odd dyad is pretty constant. So is a form of innocence or unknowingness. Is that what you sense in terms of a direction?
JR You know, I spent all this time in your books over the last five or six days, and if I were just betting on horses, in terms of directions …
AL But what would be your articulation of the direction? What’s your sense of it?
JR Well, to me it’s a direction that suddenly seems plausible; it not only holds my interest, it’s something that interests readers. I actually think “Alice in the Wasteland” has some entry into popular culture … with these mash-ups.
AL Well they’re everywhere, and this particular mash-up is a very odd one, because it’s a play between two canonical works and two canonical white male writers, but it’s also about a kind of refurbishing. That’s what’s going on with a lot of young poets: a desire to kick out the jams, to be exhilarated by other concepts or formulations. I’m just thinking about planting—plants that naturalize. The challenge for me with “Alice in the Wasteland” was to naturalize a certain kind of knowledge or preoccupation. I read these very high-tone people—I read a lot of philosophy—but I don’t think of myself as a high-tone character. So I thought, How do I naturalize that? Can I naturalize these kinds of inquisitions about language?
JR That was part of what made it so hard for me to frame that question. On the one hand the poem feels very light and easy, whimsical at times, but there is a kind of anger in that ease.
AL You mean a kind of resentment? One of the things I didn’t even notice until after I’d written this work is that Alice has no home, she’s only on a path. That’s interesting to me because paths are tropes obviously for journeys but she’s also unhoused. I think this resentful space is about poetry having no house, no place to be other than in its own pleasures. On one level she’s wandering around, having adventures in language, on the other hand, is anyone going to offer her a place to be? Give it a place to be?
JR Has white space on the page changed and do you think readers’ impression of white space has changed because of design changes, the Internet, and so on?
AL This problem of white space is interesting. I suppose Mallarmé begins it for some. But Charles Olson is the person I have in my head, always, because of his notion of the field and the sense I have of the field or meadow as being a particularly American idea. I’m annoyingly interested in American things and aesthetics! It annoys me that I am so interested in them. But I am, in the same ways I’m interested in the problems of American politics. So white space for me is about not only about the possibilities of silence or waiting or delaying but also about things that are missing. It’s about the idea of the page as a field; you can move around in a field, you don’t have to go in one direction. I have such a strong visual imagination. I really like seeing pages, the sheer display of them.
And yes, the impression of white space has no doubt changed. It’s so easy to change how things look since everything is on a screen now, so there’s a greater understanding that the justified left margin for example is just a topological conceit, something that happened because of the way people were setting type. Now you can set type any way you want, and use lots of different fonts and so on. But I want poets to have a reason for doing things. So when my students decide to go all over the page, I want them to know why they’re doing it.
JR Do you ever yearn for more than just words?
AL I certainly have envy of people who have more than just words. The reason I hang around so much with visual artists is because I get great pleasure from visualization of materials and processes. I began as a painter a long time ago, and I miss that immediacy and tactility, being out of the conceptual or mental frame. I don’t think words can ever escape those frames. Nor should they, but I do sometimes long for something a little more fundamentally direct.
JR Is poetry a live art?
AL Well, it’s not a dead art. Oh, do you mean performance?
JR Performance, yes, but more than that. It’s wonderful to read a book of poetry by a poet you know personally.
AL It’s a funny question now, because as we become more and more mediated within techno-spaces, I suppose there’s a resurgence of the need for embodied presence. People get excited by the idea of being in the presence of the actual body, the actual voice, the actual figure. Websites like Pennsound and Ubuweb and Youtube are signs that young people are interested in that particular form of witnessing or being present to something happening as it is happening. Hopefully by going through those spaces, they’ll come into the actual space. I don’t think anything can ever replace that.
JR The introduction of your The Night Sky says, “The convergence of subject matter with form results in content.” The definition seems to exclude or greatly diminish genre works, where form comes first.
AL You know, that little concept of mine came out of a conversation I had in the early ’90s with a young woman in the Bard MFA program who had learned how to be a very good painter. I was in her studio, and it occurred to me to ask her what the paintings were about. This question produced an intense emotional response; it was extremely painful for her. And I thought, So we’ve learned how to be really good formalists, but people have stopped thinking about about-ness. So I thought about how subject matter is in fact what belongs to a subject, a person. You have your about-nessess, I have mine. What a subject knows, thinks, feels, where she is from, her DNA … all that is various. So I tried to figure out a formula—maybe particular to poetry, maybe relevant to all artmaking. When subject finds form it is released from pure subjectivity. When subjects find form, content is released. This idea of content as the merger between subject and form allows the observer or reader to make meaning. Your subjectivity is allowed to be activated as itself. It doesn’t have to understand me or my subjectivity as such. Here is Ann writing a poem and she’s got this subjectivity and here is John reading it and he has his subjectivity. The poem has to release or include your subjectivity. I think meaning is made by or in that released content space. Genre is a complicated question and I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it.
JR I think about it, because 95 out of 100 prose books that come out now are genre works.
AL What does that mean to you?
JR Well, your definition seemed close to—when they used to call genre “the slicks,” a million years ago—these traditional definitions: in the literary piece, content defines form, whereas in a genre piece, form defines content. That was the hard line. It’s fuzzier now, there’s a lot of shifting.
AL I’m averse to almost all tags, all categories. I try to find a place that is untagged. Lyric poetry is a tag.
JR Yeah, it’s impossibly reductive. Is there a better word than “experimental”?
AL Well, “experimental” is certainly debased. As you know if you read my little essay about experiment in The Night Sky, the word experiment is etymologically tied at the hip to experience and to the Latin root that means to attempt something. This past summer teaching at Bard, I noticed a new, really charged-up value placed on improvisatory work. The word improvisation seemed to have new sheen, new zing. Maybe that has to do with a renewed interest in the idea of variation on a set theme or idea. Work that calls itself experimental without some kind of limit or restraint doesn’t interest me. There’s nothing pulling it back; I’m interested in what that pull-back is, what the place of restraint is in any real experiment. What’s the better word? I don’t know. Everyone wants to be in the foreground. I taught a course last year called “The Politics of Form” in which I tried to understand whether there was any real reason for the habit of equating experimental or avant-gardist work with progressive politics or if this was just a kind of peculiar received notion in certain cultures, particularly in postmodernist poetics. So we traveled back to early modernism and looked at what went on in Russia, for example, in the early 20th century, the actual revolutionary space where really extraordinary things happened in literature and music and art as well as in politics. We were trying to think about the relationship between cultural and political change and radical formal shifts in aesthetics. We didn’t reach any conclusions. But I think we should trade in the idea of the new for the idea of the now. I think postmodernism has given us permission to move across and through time-space. The past is everywhere now, and anywhere you want to find it.
JR Is there a suburban aesthetic? (laughter)
AL I don’t know. My fear is that if there is one, it’s settled in its habits of perception. These habits scare me. I don’t know why; it’s an urban prejudice. I have a fear of the suburban as an American idea. My dear colleague Anselm Berrigan was in a very smart town near where I live. He called and left a message: “I’m in this well-dressed hell-hole.” I think that is an apt description of the suburban. Neither urban nor rural. Maybe a little insular, a little pleased with itself, a little smug.
JR This is the last question: are there any questions we shouldn’t ask?
AL That question’s so strange. But it’s all fair game … I think the coherent answer is no, there aren’t any questions not to be asked. What’s the famous Stein quote? Supposedly Alice B. Toklas asked her on her deathbed, “What is the answer?” and Stein answered, “What is the question?” Perhaps hypothetical, but it’s very stirring a thing to say as you’re dying. Much more interesting than the answer.
John Reed is author of the novels A Still Small Voice, Snowball’s Chance, The Whole, and the recently released All The World’s A Grave: a New Play by William Shakespeare. Tales of Woe is forthcoming in 2010.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.