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
Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema, Chicago
April 9, 2009
The following is a transcript of the conversation.David Trinidad This is the title poem of my book The Late Show. It’s a list of scenes drawn from memory of movies that I watched in the early 1970s as a teenager. And in those days, just about the only way you could watch an old movie was by catching it on late night television and there were only about 12 channels at that time.
The Late Show
Natalie Wood, in the middle of reciting a Wordsworth poem, bursts into tears and runs out of the classroom. Carroll Baker gasps in an oxygen tent, her platinum Harlow hair damp and flat. Kim Stanley throws a champagne glass at her mother’s taxi, screaming “There is no god! There is no god!” In a chiffon cocktail dress and ankle-straps, Joan Crawford staggers down the beach, convinced her lover, Jeff Chandler, is out to murder her. Lana Turner learns that she and her daughter, Sandra Dee, are in love with the same man. Jilted and demented, Suzy Parker crouches in an alleyway in a soiled trench coat, sifting through Louis Jourdan’s trash. To avoid forging the signature of her twin sister, whom she’s killed, Bette Davis grabs the red-hot end of a fire iron with her writing hand. Doris Day, in a black lace peignoir, sobs into the telephone: “Who are you? Why are you doing this to me?” Julie Harris hears Hill House beckoning, beckoning. Geraldine Page begs Paul Newman for a fix. Simone Signoret wipes her finger- prints off the glass as James Caan collapses, dead at her feet. Lee Remick pours herself another drink. Trembling, Ingrid Berg- man watches the gaslights dim. Shirley MacLaine breaks down, admits her attraction to Audrey Hepburn. Barbara Stanwyck tries to keep Capucine. Elizabeth Taylor scrawls, with lipstick, “No Sale” across a mirror. Deborah Kerr smolders. Shelley Winters shrieks. Kim Novak screams and backs out of the bell tower, into thin air.
This poem is composed of movie titles, and is also an ecological statement of sorts.
Till the Clouds Roll By A Patch of Blue How Green Was My Valley Splendor in the Grass The Petrified Forest The River of No Return Lilies of the Field The Bad Seed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Autumn Leaves Lost Horizon Gone with the Wind
And this poem begins with an exchange of dialogue from a Joan Crawford film from the 1950s.
(reads “Queen Bee for Robin Shiff”)
This is another poem composed entirely of movie titles. I took all of the movies that Bette Davis made, there are about 80 of them, and tried to weave them into a narrative or the illusion of a narrative.
(reads All This And Heaven Too)
And I’ll finish with this poem and I think it’s a nice setup for Robert. It’s sort of about ghosts and its specifically is about seeing this William Castle film, Thirteen Ghosts, when I was about ten years, or when I was ten years old.
“Ephraim? Sybil’s Pan? The planchette rose off The Ouija board and Floated midair.”
Robert Polito So, thank you for coming, and two little statements at the outset, how great it is to be here in connection with BOMB Magazine, a magazine that David and I both have done work for, and have appeared in, and love and admire. And then I wanted to say what a particular pleasure it is to be reading with David, a poet that I’ve admired for a long time and his work has been very central to me. We were talking about how we met and I think we met at a high risks book reading in New York maybe about 15 years ago and he was a vital part of the New School graduate writing program before we lost him and you were lucky enough to get him here at Columbia. I’ll read four poems. I’m going to start with a poem called “Confidential,” which is named after the great, old Hollywood scandal magazine, Hollywood Confidential.
She wears the Sacred Heart on her sleeve for Christ’s sake, who would have pegged her as a blackmailer? There is a photograph I use to live inside, many have taken it one time or another— By the end she would only step out with her cute boy reporters, the ones who wrote she was pretty, sad, & misunderstood— Love came over us, everyone said, like destiny, to give it up would be like giving up God— But listen, this is confidential— We are at the Formosa. It is no year I can think of, but in rapid succession I’m Frank Sinatra/ Barbara Stanwyck/Gloria Graham/Orson Welles. You’d think this would be fun. They’re all cool, Right? Plus all the sex, the love, even? The yearning in those faces yearning towards me. But it’s not— and not just because I have no control Over who I become—Orson/Barbara/Gloria/Frank … would it matter? But instead I’m always too old— or too young. Someone’s just walked out on me, or I’ve just left him or her. I’m not discovered yet, or no one wants me except for who I used to be. I’m too drunk or too fat or too crazy. I’m in someone’s office, unzipping his fly. I’m shouting—don’t you know who I am? And that’s the problem, I always do. I know exactly who I am.
This next poem moves from a Bing Crosby movie to Stanley Kubrick’s film The Killing by way of Patti Smith’s first album, Horses.
Three Horse Operas
At the end of Bing Crosby’s Riding High his horse Will be buried in the clay of the racetrack where he fell, As a lesson for all of us. Sad, waggish Bing, The Mob didn’t want Broadway Bill to win, so the jockey Pulled on the reins until the thoroughbred, straining Over the finish line first, collapsed, heart attack. I loved you like a guitar string breaking Under the conviction of a clumsy hand— Something like that … I suppose I must have Been thinking of you and your complex and beautiful band, Except the image demands I hold the guitar, If not you, and the broken string, as Over and over loudspeakers call riders to the starting gate. The track bartender and a teller, a sharpshooter and the chess master Wrestler, the petty con man and a cop, reprise their parts. The heist gang dons clown masks, and Sherry will betray George, and Johnny can’t love Fay, And the fortune in the suitcase just blows away.
A somewhat different poem called Mike The Winger. The city of the poem is Quincy, Massachusetts, where I mostly grew up.
Mike the Winger
City of Presidents,
City of the Granite Railway and Fore River Shipyard.
But city too of condoms ground into our pitcher’s rubber,
and city of water rats and black leeches floating in the spring runoff.
City of the first Howard Johnson’s, the first Dunkin Donuts,
city of Lee Remick modeling summer dresses for her father’s store,
And city now where Beatles albums drop from the sky
as Mike the Winger speaks from inside a circling crowd —
Pockmarked, pimpled and blazing,
he looks, Tommy LeBlanc said, like someone set his face on fire
then stomped it out with golf shoes.
As he straddles his new Black Phantom,
as he rocks on his new red Keds,
as he pounds his wire basket of new LPs,
Mike demonstrates the legendary gesture that gave him his name.
“I play ‘em once, then I wing ‘em,” he says —
Every afternoon Mike spins his own Top 40 from his bike
like a paperboy launching the Patriot Ledger across our lawn —
“Those Rolling Stones? Those Beach Boys? Those groups all you kids like?
They’re OK. But man, I love them Beatles —
they wing up real good!”
What about his parents? Where does he grab all that cash?
Nobody stops to ask,
caught in the awe of the grander phenomenon —
Manna from heaven —
Records eased from their jackets and arced into air —
Records pristine and gleaming in trees,
records scratched and gritty on the streets,
Amid shouts of Go Mike, Go nuts, Go wingnut,
Come on Mikey baby wing one over here —
The hits just keep on coming …
The dead are everywhere,
but if Mike is still alive,
he’d be tracking retirement age —
Though how do you retire from something like winging?
Mere technological obsolescence? Mike frustrated by CDs,
casualty to a digital age?
Maybe winging records is like making movies,
or saying Mass,
your calling —
You do it until you can’t do it anymore.
Mike worshipped the early Gods of rock ‘n’ roll,
Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly,
then he winged everybody else..
None of the records Mike tossed have ever gone away.
Who would have guessed that?
City of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, our 2nd & 6th Presidents.
City of Miles Connor, rockabilly singer & art thief.
City of Robert Polito.
City of Mike the Winger.
And I’ll end with the title poem.
Hollywood and God
If only God would save me, I would know how to hurt you. If only God would save me, I would know who to sell my soul to. Anything is an autobiography, but this is a conversation— William Burroughs insisted literature lagged 50 years behind painting, thinking no doubt about abstraction, collage, fragmentation, his cut-ups. But whatever that meant (why always 50 years?), or however he presumed to rile other writers, poetry probably does lag behind any credible media theory about it— so that if I put a pine tree into a poem, a grove of pine trees and beyond them the sea, you’d think it was the same tree Wordsworth put there; instead of two obligatory centuries of nature studies, all those Technicolor vistas, torch songs, couples drifting through leaves in Salem commercials. Into one life and out another, the way a junkie playing a writer, a writer playing a priest, so that when I finally blurted out, You-betrayed-me / I-wounded-you / We’re-so-unhappy you assumed the burden of personal urgency, supposed it was me speaking at the limits of my self-control and not The Damned Don’t Cry, Temptation, and Leave Her to Heaven. You open your mouth and a tradition dribbles out. But that’s mimesis— how almost impossible to avoid mimesis, anybody’s hardest truths prompting the most fractured constructions, the way to think about God might be to disobey God, if only God’s wish to remain hidden, so that if everything is an autobiography, this is a conversion. As my lives flash before me, why must the yearning for God trump all other yearnings? You often hear converts confess the drinking, his pills, her sexual addiction, concealed inside them a yearning for God— why not the other way around? The admission of Jesus into your life concealing instead the wish, say, a need To be fucked senseless drunk drugged & screaming Oh God! Oh God! on a hotel bed … God embraces our yearnings. That afternoon my father heard his diagnosis of inoperable cancer, my aunt Barbara demanded we get him to Lourdes She demanded this with a glass of vodka in her hand— she demanded this running her fingers up and down my leg— she demanded this before she passed out in her car— In the movie of my life, my father died after I forgave him, & when my secret tormentor said may the ghosts of your dreams gnaw at your belly like a wolf under your jacket, did she really want revenge, or was she just killing time? For me God is a hair shirt, or he’s nothing; for me God is a pain in the ass; that’s mimesis, again, this hour I tell you things in confidence, I might not tell everybody, but I’ll tell you. The world is a road under the wall to the church, the world is a church, & the world is a road, & the world is a stone wall. Still, he wanted her the way the Cardinal wanted the Caravaggio, & when the ill-advised possessor of the painting resisted— one night Papal Guards searched his house. Of course contraband came to light, some illegal rifles, & when the ill-advised possessor of the painting went to prison— the Cardinal got his Caravaggio. But I wasn’t a Cardinal, nephew to the Pope, and you— you were not a Caravaggio. So I asked you to be in my movie.
RP Maybe we might start like with that poem you read about ghosts, at the end, you know that draws on James Merill’s The Book of Ephram and other things. But it seems to me that one of the subjects that both of our books are about is the relationship between the living and the dead. I mean, there are a lot of elegies in your book, very movingly for your mother but also for actresses and in a way there’s a spirit of elegy about your own childhood that I think the book conveys. And, I’ve often thought that movies, particularly black and white movies, are about the relationship between the living and the dead. I mean I think we’ve all had the experience of being struck looking at a movie and thinking suddenly, Oh, everybody on the screen, now, no matter how young and how alive or vibrant, they’re all dead. Maybe we could pursue that a little bit, because I’m certainly very interested in a notion of kind of poetry as a conversation with dead, you know, the great dead as some people put it.
DT You know, I was thinking, when I was reading those poems, my book, The Late Show, the title came to me fairly early on, and so, there was this way in which, my relationship to old movies, especially the movies from my childhood, intermingled with the elegies for writer friends and relatives. Part of it for me is that the movies gave me such a sense of comfort and escape as a child. You know, there’s this longing or nostalgia for that sense. I think I still turn to movies for that. I know what you mean, I watch movies and it strikes me, God, everyone’s dead, everyone who made this movie is dead. And yet, it comes alive for me, you know it’s still very much alive.
RP Oh yeah, I think that’s the other side of it. I think that, one of the things that I think our poems are obviously interested in are a kind of making those moments come alive. Even to use a kind of fancier word for, like even resurrecting them in some ways in the poems themselves, and eternizing them in some way.
DT And you know when I was reading too, I thought, God, a lot of the people in the audience are so young, I wonder how these movie references are coming across for them. Maybe they can tell us in a few minutes.
RP Yeah, but I think one of the interesting things about being alive at this moment is that, unlike when say you and I were in college, I think that one’s access to movies of the past and music of the past is so much easier and faster now. And it’s like nothing, from sort of WWII on, has gone away. That’s one of the things I think that the end of “Mike The Winger” is kind of about, is that who would have guessed that when he was throwing these Beatles and Rolling Stones and Kinks albums from his bicycle, that people would still be listening to those records almost 50 years later.
DT Because wasn’t there a sense growing up that this stuff was gonna disappear, it felt transient, you know, a song would be replaced by a new hit. Or a movie would leave, and a new movie would replace it, and you couldn’t see it anymore. And then to become an adult, and everything’s coming back at us, this great profusion.
RP I mean, we all have friends who ritualistically buy Beatles albums for their children. Um, yeah, it was meant to be a disposable culture, or at least it was thought to be.
DT And I’m a complete DVD addict, I mean, I just love owning films and I have friends who think, what, why do you have to own these?
RP Same, same. It’s a real estate problem.
DT Whether these albums now, whether you can slip them into and get rid of those shelves.
RP I was wondering, rereading your book, whether you see the poems about your mother, the poems about actresses, and the poems about writer friends like Jimmy Schuyler and Joe Brainer, is similar or on a continuum. For instance, when you write a poem about Jimmy Schuyler, other than the fact that you knew him and, as far as I know, didn’t know Bette Davis, what is the difference?
DT (interjects) It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know Bette Davis.
RP What is the difference for you?
DT Well you know, they feel maybe more similar than different, because, in writing those elegies, the challenge was finding a way to talk to my dead, you know, the people that I miss. And I shied away from that for a long time, so it seemed like a really difficult thing to do. I don’t really understand the attraction to certain actresses and film stuff, and that I’m trying to figure out, by writing the poem, why do Bette Davis and Joan Crawford mesmerize me so? And so, I see a similarity there in that I’m trying to find a way to sort of talk to them, and solve something. Does that make sense?
RP Oh, very much so.
DT And you know, in your book, there are lots of speakers in your book. There’s Paris Hilton. There’s Michael Edwards who lived with Priscilla Presley. There are sort of these figures from I guess the b-side of celebrity. And then there’s a speaker who, we talk a little bit about this earlier between ourselves, I wanna see as you, the poet. It was referred to as Bobby Polito, you know, but it’s a little slippery so maybe you could talk about that.
RP This is a very heavily collaged book, I mean, obviously. There’ll be passages that sound like they’re in my voice but they’re actually from, I don’t know, Newsweek magazine, or something like that. Or, for instance, in the title poem, when I say, “I might not tell everybody this but I’ll tell it to you,” that’s a direct quote from Whitman. So in a way it’s actually his confession at that moment. And one of the things that struck me about that line is that it doesn’t sound like Whitman. It actually sounds more like Gertrude Stein who’s also quoted in the poem. It has that kind of sly, slipperiness about it. You know, here you are, either in a poem or an auditorium like this, saying, I wouldn’t tell everybody this, but you’re important enough and I trust you enough to tell that to you. And what I was really interested in was getting other people to tell my story and then mixing in passages that seem like they’re my story but they’re other people’s stories. So that the book I think sounds a lot more autobiographical than it is. I’ve always been very interested in the tones of voice of confessional poetry without necessarily being all that interested in autobiography. I don’t have all that much interest in my own childhood in some ways. It was a time in which I was relatively happy until adolescence, and it’s there and kind of manageable and sometimes I’ll kind of go near it. But I obviously have like a real interest in childhood and other people’s childhood and things that spring off from childhood like religion. Or at least in my case growing up, despite my Italian sounding last name, kind of very Irish Catholic, in Boston. But it all kind of comes back to sounding personal. And I think that’s also what I wanted to do with the collages in some ways. I think a lot of collage poetry of the ’80s and ’90s draws attention to itself as collage. And I was interested in more collaging lots of things but making them sound kind of seamless, making them sound almost like they came from a single speaker. Even though if you looked at it kind of closely it all sort of fragments in front of you.
DT It’s pretty convincing … I felt.
RP It was the hope, the hope.
DT I think we’re different there, because you know I have to write … Sort of tricking myself into believing it is me speaking, of course it ends up being the speaker in the poem, it’s not me, but I have to sort of believe that I’m speaking from the center of my feelings or experience.
RP And I think the feelings are really important. I’m really glad that you say you found it convincing. Because if it wasn’t convincing, it would in a way be drawing attention to itself as a kind of collage exercise or something like that rather than something in which I’m taking my own feelings and then maybe triangulating them through some other source. And I’ve always thought one of the great moments obviously in classic confessional poetry is Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” where the speaker of that poem goes down and almost kind of creepily talks about himself as looking in the windows of what he calls these love-cars, these people making out in some lovers’ lane. In the notes to that poem, in Frank Bidart’s edition of the book, he says that that’s a story borrowed from the biography of Walt Whitman, that Lowell didn’t really do that. And similarly in that prose piece in there about Revere Street, the captain who takes over it never had any kind of physical existence outside of Lowell’s head either. So I think that a lot of what seems autobiographical even in classic confessional poems … And I know that you’re a big fan of Sexton, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of her poems move in the same eerie mix of fiction and autobiography. Is that true?
DT Possibly … I think so, yeah. She said, sort of famously that, “Poems will force you to lie and invent things,” which I find to be true too. (laughter). Even though I still believe it’s all me.
RP Yeah, no, I mean, and this is all me in some sense too, but … Not.
DT I was really moved at the end of your piece, Shame, which is a memoir-esque piece about the photograph of the speaker’s grandmother, shall I say? The almost you.
RP It’s like that Elvis Costello song, “Almost Blue”: “almost me, almost you, almost blue.” (laughter).
DT But in that way, it felt like your book is haunted by both public and private ghosts.
RP Oh, absolutely. And in that poem, or that prose piece, whatever it is, it’s an attempt to come to terms with some of the things you were talking about too. It was an effort to understand my father and why he was the way that he was by way of understanding the remarkably little that I actually know about his mother, my grandmother. And most of what’s in there about her is absolutely true as far as I knew it at the time. But it’s very little. I was struck, like when I did my Thompson book that I know way more about his ancestors than I know about my own. I could take his ancestors back centuries. I really can’t go back much before my father, and it gets very hazy with particularly the Italian grandparents. And at the end of that piece I connected to something that I think means a lot to both of us … Which is collections. In my case, it was collecting tintypes, these old photographs, as a way of, to a certain extent, searching for my grandmother. Because a lot of these tintypes would have been taken in the period when she would have been a young person, and alive. And the way in which I think those photographs for me are an attempt to put together a kind of alternate family, a family that I know something about, at least to the extent of having photographs of them. And I’ve often been struck, like you can walk into a junk store or an antique store, which are often the same thing, and there’ll be an album there of photographs taken at the turn of the 20th-century or something like that, or taken before WWI. And it’s an entire family and you can buy it for relatively little money and then suddenly you can read your way through it, you know, who are these people? There are multiple pictures of the same person. You kind of imagine your way into the pages of that album. And I think that piece is a little bit about those things, but very driven by an effort to understand my father and his yearnings and what was missing from his life in the form of his mother.
DT It makes me think too, you know, the piece I read about Bette Davis’s films, that too seems to be a collecting impulse to bring together all these films. Like when I was a teenager I would study the films of Bette Davis.
RP Yeah, and I think collage from one perspective is exactly that, right. It’s an effort to bring together all of these things and by bumping them up against one another make something out of them.
DT You know, you have a line in one of your poems, “the glamour of the damaged,” and that’s something I relate to, sort of being attracted to fallen Hollywood stars. So, maybe we could talk about the appeal of that.
RP Well, it’s interesting. That’s in a poem that’s about an apparently seemingly kind of disturbed woman who was absolutely convinced that she was living with Bob Dylan when she wasn’t. And I actually met this person. She was in New York actually trying to sell a book about that experience. What I wanted to do with the poem was not just make her absolutely mercenary and not just make her totally delusional. But that she was actually living with someone who had actually convinced her that he was Bob Dylan. And I think the glamour of the damaged, I mean, for me, it comes in a way at least autobiographically, more from rock ‘n’ roll in some ways than it comes from movies. I grew up much more on music than I did on the movies, and my interest in movies comes a little bit later. I remember one of my friends talking about the appeal of being a rock singer was that you would get to stage your crises in front of thousands and thousands of people. It seems to me that that kind of mellow dramatic fallen sense, I think, is a very deep part of what rock ’n’ roll is about. You know, the sense that it’s sung from loss, it’s sung from desperation, it’s sung from anger. That’s the damage part of it, and the glamour part of it is the public part of it, that somehow you’re making art or spectacle out of it. And I’m guessing that some of the actresses that you write about (though I write about actresses too, like Barbara Peyton would certainly fit that) have that same quality.
DT Yes, I think so, but I am very drawn to the notion of (I don’t know why) usually a female movie star who has outlived her fame, you know, sort of the indignity of that. That’s just so mesmerizing. And I think it has to do too with the inability to accept how transitory life itself is.
RP Right. The artist that has been extremely important to me is Andy Warhol. And I think that’s what a lot of Warhol is about, the description you just gave of people outliving their fame is something that he was very interested in, particularly in the early ’60s, in those death and disaster paintings, or the Liz paintings, or the Marilyn Monroe paintings … Or not outliving it, you know. (Pause). Was Warhol important to you?
DT Yes. Yes, very important to me. I’m not sure I can articulate why, even. It’s a little mysterious, but those images are mesmerizing … The soup cans, Marilyn, and Liz.
RP Yeah, you know there’s something about making art, and beautiful art, out of race riots, electric chairs, and car wrecks that is inescapably a part of what I think of as poems.
First Speaker Are there poems about looking at photographs, or poems about listening to music, that you have in mind as having a kinship to your poems about watching films and remembering films?
DT Well, one that comes immediately to mind is an early poem by Alice Notley, called “I watch the 1977 Academy Awards,” which is about just that. I’ve always loved that poem. There are many, many examples. And I find that students write poems about the things in popular culture that are important to them, like songs, and movies.
Well I was thinking particularly of video games, since late show movies were part of your adolescence experience, and these games, far more so than Bette Davis, are a part of their experience. I’m just trying to find a generational counterpart.
DT I’m sure there are … I haven’t read any.
RP I think that with my students, anyways, “Nick at Nite” is the closest we come to a common culture, I think, in America. If you want to get a laugh at a poetry reading, all you have to do is introduce the title of a classic television program from the 60s or the 70s or something like that. I think that everybody responds to that the way maybe in some earlier era that they responded to Homer or Virgil. Everybody who read knew them. I really like Edward Field’s Variety Photoplays, which I think is a great book of poems, mainly about B-movies, horror movies …
DT (interjects) And often just retelling the plots.
RP Yeah, often just retelling the plots. And then a very different kind of poem might be James Merill’s poems about operas, or his ballad about imagining. Which I was reminded of like in your ballad, in the way in which he imagines a singing bird baby being stolen so that it’s almost like a kind of pulp story. But for me actually, to go back to rock ’n’ roll, it would be like, you know, Kinks songs, particularly the album Everybody’s in Show Business. You can see all the stars as you walk along Hollywood Boulevard, some that you recognize, some that you’ve probably never heard of.
DT I don’t know if we’re answering your question …
RP Video games is a gap for both of our …
DT (jokes) What are video games?
I’m just wondering … What is the small shelf on which your books belong next to earlier generations’ books of poems about other kinds of second hand experience, and “Ode To A Grecian Urn” is worthy of old school ones like that. But I’m just wondering … Do you feel yourself belonging to some kind of minor … um …
DT … strain?
RP – Tradition. But more specifically, of a kind of ekphrasis.
My Last Duchess, I’d love to be on the same shelf My Last Duchess is on.
DT Oh so we can go back in time? (laughter) Sappho.
Second Speaker Well, I’ve never played video games, and I definitely resonate more with Bette Davis than video games. So I just think that’s really interesting, being the age that I am and everything. And I got so many other movie references that you talked about and I just think that’s awesome. Right on guys.
DT You know, there is a tradition, in contemporary poetry of writing about popular culture and figures from popular culture. I mean it goes back to Edward Field and Frank O’Hara.
RP He said that poems should be at least as interesting as the movies.
DT Right. And a poet like Tim Dlugos, who was one of the first poets I know to write about television shows. He has a poem called “Gilligan’s Island” which is quite marvelous.
RP Yes. John Ashbery’s “Popeye.”
Third Speaker I know “The Late Show” quite well, and David’s work, but I have a question for both of you … Different questions. So, when I heard the poems this time, I was struck by a new layer for me in their very deep elegiac nature, which you spoke about, which Robert Polito spoke about. For example, in one of the first poems that you read, that ends with “…vanishing into thin air with Kim Novak going out the window” and I’ve always understood this deep need that your poems are working in and trying to figure out, and has to do with the mediation of identity, possible identities and so on. But this time I was struck by where some of the elegiac quality is coming from is the ways in which certain identities are recognized as sort of never possible. Like they’ve already always vanished just at the moment of one’s perception of them. And, I don’t know if I’m articulating this well. And Bette Davis and so on. And for them, for the actresses as well, and the fictive women being portrayed, certain realms of identity that are being played with and being put on but are not actually possible. And then there is of course the speaker, or you, looking at these identities, as you said “I was Medea.” I love that claiming of it, but at the same time that utterance has to be haunted by its own impossibility. I thought that was very powerful and very moving, so I’d be interested if that resonates with you at all. And Robert Polito, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about God, and why that compels you or where that comes from in any degree.
DT That’s such a great comment, and I think so much of what I write about comes from that sort of deep wound or sorrow or knowledge or question of what can be possessed, what can I posses. You know there’s the flickering images on a screen. I think that’s at maybe the heart of what I do, you know, the sadness I can’t really connect or possess … Which I especially felt in childhood. You know, the things I couldn’t have, the person I couldn’t be, and all of that I think comes into it.
RP I was raised Catholic, I’m not a practicing Catholic. And I think in most conventional ways I wouldn’t consider myself a believer in God. But I have a … as I think probably was apparent when we were talking a little while ago … I have my own little kind of cult of the dead, in some ways. I mean I have a kind of sentimental superstition about the relationship between myself and my dead family, and my dead friends, that moves on a tangent into maybe dead writers and artists that have meant a lot to me. As I said before, I very much do think of poetry particularly as a conversation between us, who are alive, and those who are dead, via the page. You know, reading them on the page, and moving inside them for the period in which you read the poem. And I think that’s what embodiment is about. Religion, I think, is very much about embodiment. But in the book, once I had that title, Hollywood and God, and curiously it was initially my joke title for the book. The serious title for the book was another poem called, “Deep Deuce.” It was a phrase that I found in Oklahoma City and it means “way down on second street.” But all the poems I knew were about Hollywood and God. That was just kind of the working title that I had and then at some point it shifted over to the real title. And I was interested in these moments in which transcendence bumps up against celebrity culture, which I think happens all the time in the United States. But I didn’t want it to be satirical really. I mean I didn’t want it to be a book of jokey poems about funny people that the poems were making fun of because I’m very moved by religious impulses in myself and in other people. The trivializing them in culture shouldn’t be mistaken for what is powerful and basic and essential about those spiritual impulses.
DT But at the same time though, in your book, there’s a sense of religion or religious dogma and then Hollywood stardom …
RP As being analogous.
DT And being illusions that drop away.
RP Yeah, as both illusions and maybe half-necessary illusions at the same time. Because it’s hard to imagine not being interested in those things, you know?
DT One other thing about what Lisa said, you know, when you were talking I remembered that at the end of the first poem I read where Kim Novak sort of vanishes or falls into thin air and then my elegy for James Schuyler where he disappears at the end, you know, yeah, people we love vanish.
Any final questions?
DT We can’t end on that note … . I guess we can.
Robert Polito’s most recent books are the poetry collection Hollywood & God and The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (forthcoming August 2009). His other books include Doubles, A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, and Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson, which received the National Book Critics Circle award in biography. He is the founder and Director of the New School Graduate Writing Program, and is completing a new book, Detours: Seven Noir Lives.
David Trinidad’s most recent book, The Late Show, was published by Turtle Point Press in 2007. With Jeffery Conway and Lynn Crosbie, he co-wrote Phoebe 2002: An Essay in Verse (Turtle Point, 2003), a mock-epic based on the 1950 film All About Eve. His other books include Answer Song (High Risk Books, 1994), Hand Over Heart: Poems 1981-1988 (Amethyst Press, 1991), Pavane (Sherwood Press, 1981), and Plasticville (Turtle Point, 2000), a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets. With Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, he edited Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry (Soft Skull Press, 2007). Trinidad teaches poetry at Columbia College Chicago, where he co-edits the journal Court Green.
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