In the most recent installment of the Poem Present series, California poet Rae Armantrout read from her most recent works in Rosenwald Hall yesterday afternoon. Armantrout is the author of ten collections of poetry, the most recent of which include Up to Speed, Next Life, and Versed. Armantrout continues to write, as well as collaborate with other poets, and is currently a professor of writing at the University of California, San Diego. In an e-mail interview with the CHICAGO MAROON, Armantrout discussed her poetics and her views on language.
Chicago Maroon: When you first started to write, what led you to choose poetry as a medium of expression?
Rae Armantrout: I started to write poetry when I was about five. Needless to say, I didn’t know why. I think it was because my mother read poetry to me and the echoing sounds seemed to give shapes to feelings.
CM: You cite both William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson as influences on your poetry. What in particular do you admire about them, and what do you attempt to draw into your own work?
RA: Williams and Dickinson both seemed startling and intense, though in very different ways. The apparent starkness of Williams’ early poetry appealed to me. There is a music behind that apparent starkness. Williams’ poems were the places where I first realized how form and content could be related in a visceral way. Dickinson’s poems are startling because they make wild associative jumps. She often puts two words together that you’ve never seen together before (nor will again). For instance, there is the narrow fellow in her poem about seeing a snake.
CM: In your essay “Cheshire Poetics,” you say that “[you] think of [your] poetry as inherently political. (Though it is not a poetry of opinion).” What do you feel is the power of poetry as an art form, and what do you seek to accomplish through your work?
RA: The poetry I am most interested in charges the language with more than one possible meaning or emotional register. It brings different realms of discourse together to see how they get along or don’t. I think that causes a reader to slow down and really look at the words, to think twice. It’s a good way to teach critical reading or listening. It should also be a pleasure.
CM: Who is your ideal audience? For whom do you see your poetry having the most impact?
RA: I write poetry for myself first, of course. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be real. I’m investigating my own perceptions and feelings. Beyond that, I write for anyone who is open to reading or listening.
CM: In your style of poetics—Cheshire Poetics, to use your term—you cultivate a system of expression that is both playful and complex, in which the unspoken implications of the words do just as much to unify the piece as the actual words on the page. What do you feel are the capabilities and the failings of language, and how do you go about manipulating this into expression?
RA: This is a good question, but also a large and difficult question. There is, paradoxically, a limit to the effect a direct statement can have. I can say, “I’m sad,” but that doesn’t make you sad unless you already love me. What art does, in general, is try to recreate (in some sense) the circumstances that produce certain feelings or thoughts. I’m oversimplifying now, but it’s important to say that first. Beyond that, I find that my feelings and thoughts are seldom single, simple, unmixed. Maybe a poet is a connoisseur of different states of mind. Saying that, of course, makes me uncomfortable. I wrote a poem called “Provenance” (from Versed) which investigates this discomfort. I’m going to give you the first four stanzas:
It’s characteristic of X
to place his anxiety here
What can you give me
for this glimpse
and its provenance?
I’ve got one just like it.
In this poem I’m talking about a real anxiety, but I’m talking about it in the language of art collectors. What does it mean to appreciate and judge the expressed quality of other people’s (or your own) anxiety? Is that what we do in the arts? I don’t know if that answers your question, but I took a stab at it.
CM: You are nearly finished with a project called The Grand Piano, in which you have worked with several other poets. Can you tell us a little bit about the project and what its completion means to you?
RA: The Grand Piano is a “collective autobiography” by 10 poets associated with West Coast Language Poetry. We all knew each other in the Bay Area in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The other poets involved are Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman, Tom Mandel, Steve Benson, Kit Robinson, and Ted Pearson. We’ve written 10 installments of which nine have come out as small books. The tenth is in process. We have strikingly different voices and perspectives. For me, it was an exploration of the nature and limits of memory. It’s interesting to see how a group can be composed of such distinct individuals.
CM: As readership of poetry and print media in general decreases, it seems the Artists of the Word are increasingly forced to innovate. Do you see The Grand Piano and your recent work as a response to this? What do you feel the next decade has in store for poets and their readers?
RA: I’m really bad at prognosticating. In the year 2000, who among us could have given an accurate preview of the decade we’ve just passed through?
CM: In a culture so dominated by the interests of young people, what do you feel is the place of upcoming generations in the appreciation of poetry and the written word?
RA: Once again, I hate to make predictions. The first fact that faces all of us is that our water and fuel are running out, right? Your question assumes that the future doesn’t look something like a Mad Max movie. But, setting that aside, written language has developed through centuries to be able to represent nuances of thought and feeling. In my experience, it’s the best way we have of getting a sense of “what it feels like” to be someone else. I think (I hope) that is too valuable to lose. I’m far from being an elitist. I watch television and I listen to popular music. (I like Lady Gaga right now, believe it or not.) These things get into my work at times. I don’t think we have to choose. Maybe only, say, 10 percent of people read poetry. That’s still a whole lot of people!