What I’m Reading

I tend to read a bunch of books at a time, so what I’m reading or have just finished: Adorno’s inconsistent, but absorbing, Aesthetic Theory; Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel; a recent issue of Lapham’s Quarterly; Genet’s plays Deathwatch and The Maids, with Sartre’s fantastic introduction; Jackson Mac Lowe’s The Pronouns—A Collection of 40 Dances—For the Dancers; Anne Carson’s Nox; and Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita.

On Influences

The work of several filmmakers has been hugely important to me over the last several years, especially Tarkovsky, Bunuel, Godard, Antonioni, and Bergman, as well as Hong Kong’s Wong Karwai. The way that film moves is extremely important to me: not just its manner of telling a story, with its heightened ability to create successful gaps and make leaps, but also its ability to create a substantive, complex atmosphere, where atmosphere might stand in—for story, for dialogue, etc. These films are also so important to me for the dialogue they are able get away with because the dialogue is complimented by music, imagery, movement, and an imposed pace, dialogue which might not carry so well in a medium as naked, or as wanting in plasticity, as poetry or prose often is.

On Inspiration

Reading poetry is enormously important to me, in general, and to my thinking about what’s happened and is happening out in the world (of poetry) and what might happen in my own poetry. But poetry isn’t what I usually go to if I need a catalyst for writing because when I go to write with other’s poetry in mind, I find I can only think of the particular work I’ve just read, in the particular form in which it appeared. My work is greatly influenced by prose, particularly theater and nonfiction. In turn, I’m a big underliner, and I make a lot of margin notes: questions, ideas, bits of verse, so when I need a spur for writing, I tend to simply pick up whatever texts I’ve most recently been taken by, whether books of poetry, or not. If I go to a book for a kind of artistic or intellectual catalyst, I usually go to those underlinings and notes.

Favorite Line of Poetry—Ever.

This week it’s Dickinson’s [line from “I felt a Funeral”]: “And then a Plank in Reason, broke.” Tomorrow, who knows?

On Contemporary Poets 

I’m gonna give you three: Monica Youn, Dan Chiasson, and Cathy Wagner. These three, in part, because their work actually evolves, and because I think it’s impossible to pigeonhole any of the three as one “kind” of poet. They are, from moment to moment, accessible and experimental, concrete and conceptual, linear and nonlinear, intellectual and emotional, and so on. Finally, one has an experience of the uncanny in confronting the work of all three.

Monica Youn’s second book, Ignatz is a brilliant text, refiguring poetic themes—love and loss, sublimity and violence—which have otherwise become routine. Youn uses the characters of the comic strip Krazy Kat—characters twice removed from us by virtue of both their cartoon-ness and their animal-ness—to defamiliarize otherwise familiar experiences into experiences that attain a new kind of presence in our comprehension of the world. In other words, the world of Krazy Kat becomes an object through which both a new and an old relation to objects, and personal histories, is being voiced.

Dan Chiasson’s work often places his speakers or characters, and so us, in contexts which are somehow foreign or off-kilter; people are doing or saying things which don’t seem to fit the otherwise “normal” contexts in which they find themselves. And this, rather than simply being “weird” (which so much contemporary poetry seems to be) is actually disturbing, because at one moment, as observers, we feel ourselves off-kilter as those in the poems are off-kilter, while a moment later, as actors in the world, we are in fact off-kilter because we recognize something of ourselves in all of that out-of-place-ness.

Finally, Catherine Wagner’s work, particularly her most recent book, My New Job, is simply unlike any other poetry I’ve read by a living poet. This isn’t an estimation of the quality of the poetry, per se, but of its constitution. Though it is wonderful poetry. When reading Wagner’s poems you have the intensely personal sense of being inside someone’s head, a kind of more spontaneous, more immediate, less mediated stream of consciousness experience. Wagner uses that personal, interior voice and point of view to allow her to engage beyond herself—never in a heavy-handed manner—with larger issues: motherhood, sex and sexuality, the implicit politics of being alive and “average” in America today, etc.