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
I first met Laurie Sheck in the summer of 1995, at another poet’s, Julie Agoos’s place in Princeton. Laurie lived in Princeton too, and taught at Rutgers, and I was there visiting friends for the day. The house was set on soft hills, horse country, and a dozen poets stood on the lawn while kids tore, weaving through the trees and out from under a picnic table. The first thing that struck me was Laurie’s intensity. On the basis of one poem she’d seen somewhere, she had sought out more of my work, and she asked me about various lines. She spoke of a wide range of consonant poets, a wider range than many people were reading at that time, and it soon became clear that hers was a remarkable curiosity and intelligence.
I found her work shortly thereafter, and it bowled me over. Fiercely evocative, it made of the world that same intensity of experience that characterized her conversation. What we have wrought, as human beings, appeared in these poems as both toxic and our one possibility. The poem, “The Unfinished,” which appeared the next year in her collection The Willow Grove (Knopf) opens:
We were characters in a story
the writer couldn’t bring himself to finish.
and takes up, further on:
It was night when he left us,
and the child who could not yet remember her dreams
woke saying, where are the toys of the moon,
are we the moon’s toys? Outside, lines
of stiff trees stood like hieroglyphs,
the configuration of the one for dagger
so close to the one that stands for shrub,
so hard to understand the difference;
or the one for fear that also could mean
reverence, the one for medicine so similar
to entreaty and to prayer.
And in the distance the red tremor
of the radio tower, and the planes that passed above us
as we held to the earth and didn’t understand the earth.
Her books are Amaranth, now out of print; Io at Night; The Willow Grove; and most recently, Black Series, a haunting interrelated sequence of poems, each of which seems written since the World Trade towers fell, but in fact were all composed several seasons prior. The damage of the world is present, met, addressed. But so is a spirit that I, projecting on it my own beliefs, can only describe as grace. Sheck is a remarkable teacher—we have overlapped, in large part thanks to her, at Rutgers, Princeton, and in the New School’s graduate writing program—but she has never given readings. Our opportunity to catch some of this extraordinary curiosity and intelligence only happens on her nuanced pages, or in a rare interview like the one we did in person, after vowing to do it by e-mail, at my dining room table, on the last day of Daylight Savings Time, 2001.
Susan Wheeler Since reading your poems about the apparatus of television, I can never watch a TV without seeing ghosts. Mannequins, another of your tropes, have appeared in each of your books. Here, in Black Series, they seem the most extreme ever—the irradiated flip side of the living.
Laurie Sheck Mannequins, television sets, computer screens, they were images that I was curious about, also sound bites, captions, headlights, neon light, fluorescent lighting, buildings—things we fill our world with, both alluring and disturbing—
SW You get a sense of this sickly, poisoned light—
LS Yes. Although I didn’t know what I wanted to do—when you write a book you create a space that you wander around in. I did have a sense, as I was writing, that certain things were coming through: an interest in destabilization, in disruption, in disturbance. The mannequins have a rather specific history, because they are in all my books, and I’ve come to see that they’re partly encoded self-portraits. I don’t think the self-as-self is particularly interesting, I don’t want to write about the events of my life, but I did notice that these mannequins kept coming up. And I used to go around photographing mannequins, so clearly I have a fascination with them. But I started a long psychoanalysis a number of years ago for several reasons, one of which was that my body had gotten very stiff and it hurt, so I was in constant pain, and I was stiff to the point where sometimes I would just shake. Neurological tests showed nothing physically wrong. I couldn’t help but think of the mannequins, and I went in to see the analyst and I told him about the symptoms. Just as a person’s dreams are not interesting to other people, I don’t think a person’s psychoanalysis is interesting to other people. But the way the mannequins change in this book I perceived as a reflection of my willingness to be disturbed, for my own thought processes to be challenged and destabilized, and so the first poem of the book, which is not where the book started, begins, “Even the mannequins change.” Over the years, the rigidity did go away. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, because I think part of what happens in absorbing any kind of knowledge is that we find more and more that we don’t know. We think we know, and things keep on slipping away. But that image of the mannequin came from this. A lot of the images that may convey a sense of rigidity or entrapment—the TV screens, the computer screens, the mannequins—I think of in juxtaposition to Walt Whitman’s wonderful movement, all his participles and how he journeys over the world and through the cosmos. He has all those ellipses, all those “ing” words. As much as Whitman could be bombastic, I love that, I love that sense of movement. In a way, entrapment—the way a TV set entraps the people within it so that they seem almost ghostly, irradiated—makes you long for its opposite. So rigidity and the desire for movement, not that I planned it out ahead of time, are one of the tensions at the heart of this book. And in the second part of Black Series, there are long poems—I think because of the desire to move around in the world, if that makes any sense.
SW Yes, it does. There are images of traces, records of movement, the cave paintings, radiography—in a sense, even the mannequins in the book’s first poem echo the ghost on the television screen because the headlamps moving across the mannequins alter one’s perception of form: “Even the mannequins change / as the headlights pass over them, swathing them / in strangeness. A face briefly lit, magnetized by / street light.” But in the second half of the book, each of the toxic images becomes much more ambiguous, and much more incorporated as a part of the self. The book ends on that amazing image of movement with the billowing colorful hems on the subway platform. I’m always marveling at how you can take a desolate or dreary setting—in Willow Grove’s “Stock Room,” for instance, where someone is shooting up—and yet suddenly this incredibly luminous, living image blows through.
LS If I’m drawn to those desolate settings, I’m also drawn to the mind in motion. How does the mind—not so much the story of a person’s life, I find stories pleasurable to listen to, but I’m not a storyteller, and it’s not my ambition in my poems—how does a mind move, and how do you capture that on paper, how does a poem become a living thing? I think of poems as nervous systems, and if you think of a nervous system, it transmits energy, it’s full of synapses, surges, faltering, rushes, smoothnesses, volatility, balance, imbalance, rhythms, and of responsiveness, calm, retreat, and emergency. How do you find a form for that? That interests me, where you don’t violate the motion of the lines, you don’t violate the sense that a poem can be a nervous system with all its various rhythms within it and still somehow cohere. There are four lines from Emily Dickinson that I’ve thought of often in terms of writing: “A bomb upon the Ceiling / Is an improving thing / It keeps the nerves progressive / Conjecture flourishing.” In a way, all our lives we have bombs upon the ceiling, and the image of a bomb upon the ceiling is a very disturbing thing, but if it keeps the nerves progressive, if it keeps conjecture flourishing, then the mind is moving. And so I was trying to break out of my rigidity again in that first poem, and at least get the mannequins to change, to grow red wings, whatever they’re doing.
Gertrude Stein famously said, “I am I because my little dog knows me.” But in terms of the imagination, the little dog knowing that you are you, and your recognizing that he knows, is what can destroy creation. It’s very comforting that your little dog knows you, and there’s a sense of attachment—I am I because my little dog knows me, and I come into the room and he greets me and all that—but when you’re actually writing, you let go of everything you know, you let go of the self. And so even the mannequins change as the headlights pass over them.
Part of what I was struggling with in this book is that I can’t just push the rigidity away and say it’s not part of my own nervous system, my own way of seeing the world, but it does release a longing. The line in the book that reads, “The love of structure and the love of wind”—it’s that sense of movement, of reaching out to the world beyond what I would think of as the narrow confines of self. I’m much more interested in consciousness than self.
SW A sense of asceticism does come through in Black Series, and even a sense that this restraint can stave off the fluorescent light. Also, that something like hawkweed, for example—loose hawkweed—is a rich object; and that without our ghostly distractions, we’d understand its worth. Are you saying then, that even the language itself represents a sensuality that can impede a restorative restraint?
LS I see it representing an excitement that I didn’t always let myself have. There’s a poem late in the book called “Walls,” in which a beggar kisses a child on the head and it really unnerves this child, not in a bad way, but at some point the child in her sleep says, “a beggar kissed me on the head. I was afraid.” Then later a voice in the poem is thinking about how the beggar kissing a person sets forth a series of reactions that are like walls breaking apart until the walls are broken into little particles, and in those particles there’s laughter, and there are sobs, and I think of that beggar as the figure of the outside, where the person that doesn’t have anything can cut through a certain complacency. I don’t know if this goes with the asceticism or not, but it can cut through a complacency to something more elemental, something less comfortable, less self-satisfied.
SW I find a sense of moral urgency in your poems. Do you think about this at all?
LS I don’t. I really like Keats’s idea of negative capability, of living in uncertainties, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason, and so I don’t go into a poem with certainties or judgments.
SW I’m talking about a sense of, well, spiritual advocacy, one that isn’t stated but that presents a side that is warned against, and a side that is celebrated. Does poetry have a responsibility, do you think, for the world it creates?
LS I think if it feels it has a responsibility it’s probably going to do it poorly. Let’s take two poets who disliked each other, Eliot and Williams. I love The Waste Land. It’s completely wacky. People forget how weird it is, and sometimes there’s a sense that we are experimenting now more radically than they did in the past, but The Waste Land is one hell of a weird poem. We know it came after a war and is a war poem, and there is a sense of the self breaking down that I think is incredibly moving. I read somewhere about The Waste Landbeing a poem of Sybilline fragments; the Sybil is quoted at the beginning of The Waste Land. The way the Sybil functioned was that someone would come, ask her a question, and she would write her answer on leaves, tear them up, throw them out, and the person had to try to put together these myriad fragments. An impossible task. In a certain sense, that’s what Eliot’s readers do; he threw out his fragments and what’s interesting is how those fragments interact with the gaps among them and become a consciousness, with voices and almost dreams within it; various voices coming in, speaking, leaving; languages coming in and leaving; presences coming in and leaving; burning, burning; until the end where the voice just breaks down: what he was able to do was to enact a world breaking apart. And because it was felt and done so deeply, there ends up being a moral component to it. Or perhaps a sacred component, a sense of the sacred, which is something that means a great deal to me. I think if you start out with the idea of a moral component, the likelihood—I can’t speak for everybody—but I think the danger is that you can do yourself in.
Williams too—his “Spring and All,” now that’s one hell of a weird poem, and when we read it now we often just read things lifted out of it, like “The Red Wheelbarrow,” a machine made of words. However, the entire book starts out in prose and Williams says, basically, If anything comes of this all the better, but who knows? And off he goes on his journey, creating a vision of an apocalypse, moving the poem through a mixture of prose and poetry toward a sense of renewal. But it’s a really dicey poem, I mean it’s a nervous, disrupted poem. Sometimes the prose is just reeling, and then you almost feel like the short poems are a way of resting a moment and saying Wait, let me get something clear here. I find that mixture of surging exploration and clarity really moving when it’s on the page instead of when it’s censored. So it’s hard to talk about the moral responsibility of poetry because we’re such complex and confused human beings. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to do the right thing in our life, we try to do the right thing. But if we try to be too right in our poems, we censor out the conflicts that guide us, if that makes any sense.
SW It does.
LS That said, I will always choose to side with the underdog, and homeless people on the street move me. When I was growing up, my father had a store in South Bronx. It was a wonderful place and a place of enormous education for me. It was a little store, on 149th street and Prospect Avenue, and my earliest memories are there. There was a sense of how little people in that neighborhood had. The store had one aisle, and at the back of the store he had put up the two masks of comedy and tragedy, which made a big impression on me. But he sold housewares, he sold stuff that people needed, knives and forks and clocks. Behind the cash register, in fact—remember those clocks that look like cats and their tail would go back and forth?—he had a whole variety of those.
SW Yeah, Felix.
LS Yeah! And over the years the store got bigger, and he would sell things that were just enthralling to me, like pictures of Jesus painted on velvet where you could plug them into the wall and his blood would rush around his body, so he had electrified blood—
LS But he had a person in this store, a homeless person, this man who would sit in the back and fold up boxes, and at night he would sleep on top of the store where the steam vent was. I saw a lot of people who just had nothing and it made a big impression on me.
SW You have had a prestigious career; you went to the University of Iowa for graduate school, have taught in top programs, received almost every major award, published with Knopf. How do you reconcile this with your childhood when you sit down to write a poem—is there a sense of dislocation?
LS I think it’s been a source of considerable confusion for me. But of course the process of writing brings with it for anyone its own set of confusions, whatever they may be. Part of what happened in this new book was I was trying to say to myself in a certain way, words are your medium, they’re what you love, you’re excited about them, and that’s okay. I told myself while the vocabulary for these poems was developing that I couldn’t feel that these words belong to another class of people. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I still have to say those things to myself. That’s one reason it was such a relief in writing this book to see some of the lines get longer, to feel that there was more of a sense of movement. I fell in love with the wind when I was writing this book, and I went online and I downloaded every reference to the wind from the OED, and it was just great. Also I go to Vermont for the summer so I take walks and watch what the wind would do—you know it’s just such a powerful force and once again stands in contrast to the mannequins, the computer screens, TV screens which entrap in so many ways. In contrast too, to the neon light that is so much a part of the landscape that we live in. I think for me neon light is also a reflection of my own nervous system.
SW The vocabulary, too, moves—
LS Yes, it accommodated words like magnetized, shocked, worrying, hostile takeovers, from the lists of words I make from the business section of the New York Times, words that make up the world we live in. Keats didn’t have computer screens, he didn’t have billboards, the language of commerce: depression, panic, struggling, hostile, stocks plunge, turmoil, cuts, disrupted operations, stability, instability—it’s a deeply emotional and fraught language.
SW The vocabularies make for wonderful surfaces in your poems. In a way, I see them in terms of that great piece on Cézanne by Merleau-Ponty you once gave me, in terms of how to embody matter, or how to materialize matter. The surfaces are just beautiful; I hear them even when I’m reading them on the page.
LS Well I think the more you write, the more you just get enthralled with words. Some words sound hard, some anxious, some soft, some calm, some sound like zigzags, there are so many, and that’s really interesting. Talking about message and moral imperative, your bringing up Merleau-Ponty’s “Cézanne’s Doubt” reminded me of something. I love that essay, and it really has served as a guide to me, too. There’s a part in it where Merleau-Ponty quotes from Balzac’s description of “a ‘tablecloth, white as a layer of newly fallen snow, upon which the place settings rise symmetrically, crowned with blond rolls.’ ‘All through youth,’ said Cézanne, ‘I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of new snow … Now I know that one must will only to paint the place settings rising symmetrically, and the blond rolls. If I paint ’crowned,’ I’ve had it, you understand? But if I really balance and shade my place settings and rolls as they are in nature, then you can be sure that the crowned, the snow, and all the excitement will be there too.’ ” I love that quote, because in a way, what it’s saying is, be attentive. And if you’re attentive as Cézanne was, and Cézanne is one of my heroes, if you’re attentive, the resonance will come, without forcing it. Cézanne’s early oil paintings were not good. They were heavy-handed, they were trying to get a message across. One of the most important things about being a human being is to be curious and to let things in. If one can be curious, and walk down the street and not block out what’s around you, not block out the person who’s sleeping by the building in the cold in a sleeping bag, who smells really bad, who doesn’t have anything, and not blame that person, but wonder—just wonder—who is that person? If you keep the curiosity alive—if one goes with the attentiveness, as Cézanne did, you look, and look, and look. And instead of painting what he was supposed to paint, he painted what he saw. And I think maybe out of that a moral vision comes, and the moral vision doesn’t feel slapped on.
SW You seem to have an incredibly visceral relationship to mythology. That is unusual in the sense that it doesn’t feel like you use Io, or you use Daphne, or the various figures in this book, Medusa: they’re completely necessary, and your own relationship with them feels obsessive, feels absolutely necessary again, because of that intensity.
LS Intensity is one of the things we respond to in art—and a sense of necessity, just as form in many ways grows out of the necessity of the poem. In terms of mythology, it’s been a really complicated relationship for me, maybe like a long marriage or something. Partly I used mythology to help a poem cohere, to release a series of images, a voice, a tone. I did go to graduate school in creative writing. My teachers would always say to me and my peers, There are good parts in these poems, but they don’t hold together. At the time I took that as a real problem. Now, 20 years later, I can say to myself, You know, that could have been interesting; hey, they didn’t hold together, I could have done something with that. Which is a little moral for what I’m doing now, because if you create a world on the page in which things that seem not to hold together can interact with each other, they can hold, and part of what’s holding, part of what’s interesting, is the way that things don’t directly hook up.
SW That also allows movement.
SW I.e., life.
LS Yes. I think a lot of people’s interest in collage now partly has to do with the sense that maybe there’s something true in that kind of movement, instead of moving in a linear way. But back then I was naive and I felt that I had to create a narrative that cohered. What I came to understand over time was that I was not at all interested in creating narrative: I wasn’t good at it, and I also wasn’t interested in it. And so I came upon the mythological figures, and they felt to me the way, say, the mannequin or computer screens did. They felt somehow true. But they also felt like something I could hook onto and explore. Everybody knows the story of Persephone, and then if you can move around within it, you don’t necessarily have to worry about moving the story forward, because the story is already there. I mean you’re right, I did feel the myth very deeply, so I tapped into things that interested me—separateness, immobility, a fraught relationship with sunlight and the outer world, a fraught relationship relating to other human beings. And the intensity: I only have one little line in this book that emerged from my thinking about this particular myth, but I was fascinated for months with the idea of Medea dipping a dress in poison and her children bringing it to Jason’s new wife—it looked so innocent. The new wife, who was quite vain, put it on, and the poisoned dress burst into flames and killed her, and her father tried to save her, and he was holding her and died, too. It’s such an intense image, and sometimes my mind just gets really compelled by those images but I can’t always use them. What I tried to do in this book was submerge the myth more. Once again, it was too monolithic; it was a framework that started to feel oppressive.
SW Laurie, I kept thinking while reading this book that I want to hear it read aloud, and I know you don’t give readings.
LS Well, I had to laugh, because I read in the New York Times this summer a review of some young fiction writer who apparently had created quite a mysterious aura and brought a lot of attention to himself by not giving readings and sending his friends out to read for him! I’ve tortured myself all these years over the fact that I don’t seem to be able to bring myself to give readings, and I thought, You know, this guy was smart! He turned it into an asset. Whereas I feel more like I’m sitting in my cave, and I can’t make the leap between writing the poems and reading them. I don’t even read them out loud to myself. I’ve tried to figure this out over the years. On a personal level, I spoke very early, and I stuttered, so I started writing very early, really bad poems; in first grade I was writing as an alternative to speaking. There was some sort of secretiveness and transgression attached to it. I wrote either in the closet of my bedroom, which I shared with my sister, or in the locked bathroom. I put a pillow in the bathtub and I would sit there and write, this was as a child and a teenager. I experience poems most strongly when I read them on the page, they are deeply visual objects to me. But I often enjoy going to readings, and I may one day be able to give a reading.
SW When you first published individual poems from this book in magazines and literary journals, many shared the same title, and so I wondered how you conceived them in relation to the book and how they made that transition to the collection and to their own individual titles.
LS I think you sense it. Once again, I think it’s like when a painter chooses a palette, I felt this aura, I felt this sense of blackness that I didn’t feel as a negative or depressive force. I felt that the blackness contained all sorts of richness and that that could be highlighted with that nervous, jumpy light. What’s that quote from Henry James? Something like, “We work in the dark, we do what we can. The rest is the madness of art.” You sort of feel your way along. I think some people have a much more schematic feel for a book, which I appreciate. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is divided into nine sections, and it’s a highly mathematical structure: the more you look at that book you realize a certain number of cities within the same overarching category are mentioned and are dropped out and a certain number come in, but that that structure was absolutely necessary to how he was moving his book along. I think mine was more intuitive.
I had a dream the other night—this is before I got any of the books in—and I dreamt Knopf had sent me the first copy of a book they had printed, and it was nothing like the book I had written. But it had in it certain kinds of wonderful things. I should preface this by saying I had been to my daughter’s back-to-school night the night before, and to her art teacher’s classroom. The teacher explained to us that their next project was to make a pop-up book that was based on feeling. And I asked my daughter afterwards if she had an idea of what her book was going to be. And she said, Yes, there would 11 panels and that it was going to be about loss and separation, this was after the World Trade Center. She was going to have a reproduction of the part of the Sistine Chapel where the two fingers almost but don’t meet. And then she told me something that really stuck with me—given that she’s adopted. She said, “I want to have a picture, I want to do a drawing, or a painting or a photograph of Narcissus looking into a pool, but his hand is in the water, disturbing the water so he can’t really see his face.” And of course with an adopted child, as close as we are to one another, one thing they cannot do is look into their parent’s face and see a physical reflection of their own. So I thought that this was an interesting intuitive image, really dealing with her own sense of who she is. And it was that night I had the dream. I dreamt that my book had Romanesque paintings in it, and photographs, and little strips of paper that would extend out from the pages that had handwritten words on them. I ran to my husband and said to him, “What can I do? They’ve printed all the books and this isn’t the book that I wrote.” And he sat down and read it, and he said, “You know, but it’s pretty interesting.”
And that sense of what a book can be, I think, is probably partly what Susan Howe is dealing with when she uses the cross-outs and the marginalia and the words at all sorts of odd angles. We’re much too tame. We have this idea of “book” but there are all sorts of ways that it can open up. We think of a book between two covers, and there is a sense of a boundary; and, as writers, one of the things we’re so used to is asserting a lot of control; but the task is always, How much control? When is it too much and what’s the balance between control and letting go? For it’s then that the excitement comes. When people get excited about books it’s because they find the book interesting but they also find the writer interested. I think that’s a part of what we felt after the World Trade Center; part of the shock was the way people were so stunned and so tired, it was almost impossible to go with the mind’s vitality and interestedness. You feel the terrible violation and loss, and you have people who live in countries all the time that are just going through one famine and upheaval after another; you sense what it might mean to live in such consuming, embattled environments. Here, we’ve had this incredible privilege, most of the time, of being able to be interested and excited.
—Susan Wheeler’s three collections of poetry are Bag ‘o’ Diamonds, Smokes, and Source Codes. Recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she has taught at the University of Iowa, New York University and Lynchburg College, among others. Currently she teaches at Princeton and in the graduate creative writing program at The New School in New York City.
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