David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Rosalie Knecht’s Vera Kelly: Lost and Found; the third book in the much beloved Vera Kelly series, which has been called “Splendid and genre-pushing” by People Magazine; and “Gripping, magnificently written” by The New York Times Book Review. In this latest installment, Knecht gives Vera her highest stakes case yet tracking a trail of breadcrumbs across Southern California to find her missing girlfriend. She travels first to a film set in Santa Ynez, and ultimately, to a most unlikely destination where Vera has to decide how much she is willing to commit to save the woman she loves. Says Tracy O’Neill, “The much-anticipated return of Vera Kelly turns a tight plot around the failures of family and high stakes love, betrayal and the unlikely adventure toward self acceptance. This novel is a pleasure as wise as it is thrilling.” Vera Kelly: Lost and Found is out on June 21st from Tin House, and available for pre-order now. It’s exciting to have a writer back when a considerable amount of time has passed since they were last on the show; for me to ask the question to myself as an interviewer of how to explore their work in a different way, and also how things might have changed with the passage of that time. Rae Armantrout was last on the show in 2017 for her New and Selected Poems Partly and her chapbook Entanglements. At the time, we focused quite a bit on her interest in quantum physics, both the language of it and its concepts in relation to her poetry. This time, five years later, we travel through Armantrout’s poetic universe from the vantage point of another interest of hers; that of cognitive science. When you travel on this realm of how we construct meaning and the effects of language making in the world, it ends up touching on many other things: from anthropology to philosophy, to questions of selfhood, voice, and truth. Really, both cognitive science and quantum physics, when you lean into the reality of them, they both can feel very surreal; and the physics can’t help but evoke questions of metaphysics as well. During the conversation, Rae reads and discusses many poems from her new double collection Finalists, and also one poem from an as of yet unpublished manuscript, one she is just finishing or has just finished. For the bonus audio archive, she reads quite a few more for us from these as of yet uncollected poems. To learn how to subscribe to the bonus audio where you can hear remarkable readings from the likes of Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, Rosmarie Waldrop, Nikky Finney, Ada Limón, Natalie Diaz, and others, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers where there are a ton of other enticements for the listener who isn’t yet a listener-supporter. One of those that every supporter gets is the email that accompanies each episode; that includes many of the discoveries I made while preparing for that given conversation—videos, podcasts, lectures, essays, scholarly work and more—as well as pointing you to things that are referenced when we talk. But there are a lot of other things too, including the satisfaction of knowing you are part of the community, the community I myself am beholden to, of people who are helping shepherd the show into the future together. Again, you can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Enjoy today’s conversation with Rae Armantrout.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Poet Rae Armantrout, one of the original members of the language school of poetry that emerged in the 1970s, first appeared on Between The Covers in 2017 to discuss her New and Selected Poetry called Partly, and her quantum physics-infused poetry chapbook, Entanglements. Prior to us talking, she had published 14 poetry collections; including the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in poetry Versed; a collection written in 2008 beneath the shadow of a likely terminal cancer diagnosis. Since we last talked, she has published Wobble; itself a National Book Award finalist. A book that, as described in the jacket copy, plays peek-a-boo with doom, but doom of a different sort, of imminent systemic collapse. As well as the collection Conjure, which, like much of her work, explores the nature of consciousness and selfhood and the mysteries of language and voice, while also engaging with the looming ecological crisis and aging. Nick Cave said of Conjure, “Unsettling, slippery intimations move just below the surface of this enigmatic and unforgettable new collection of poems. For the record, Rae Armantrout is my favourite living poet.” To extend Nick Cave’s enthusiasm backwards in time, Robert Creeley described Armantrout’s work as having “a quiet and enabling signature. I don’t think there is another poet writing who is so consummate in authority and yet so generous to her readers.” Poet and critic Stephanie Burt adds, “William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson together taught Armantrout how to dismantle and reassemble the forms of stanzaic lyric—how to turn it inside out and backwards, how to embody large questions and apprehensions in the conjunctions of individual words, how to generate productive clashes from arrangements of small groups of phrases. From these techniques, Armantrout has become one of the most recognizable, and one of the best, poets of her generation.” Michael Robbins adds, “For nearly 40 years Armantrout has made a poetics of not finding the right words—of finding, in fact, the ‘wrong’ ones; restoring the strangeness of experiences we take for granted.” Grace Cavalieri says, “Call it modernism, postmodernism, constructivism, avant-garde, or a mix. What we encounter are minimalistic, fragmentary structures that make the whole by breaking the whole.” I’m happy to welcome Rae Armantrout back five years later now to talk about her latest book, two books in one entitled Finalists, which, like most of her books, is out from Wesleyan University Press. Eileen Myles says of Finalists, “Rae thinks in poetry by now that must be it. That one can turn out book after perfect book and it turns out they are all made of poems but what are poems made of. Rae I think. What she is.” Finally, David Woo for The Poetry Foundation adds, “If Armantrout shows a new attention to aging and death in the COVID era, her aim is to gain insight and epiphany through the kind of astringent, epistemological estrangements that her work has long mastered. While death is a central theme in this work, Finalists emanates the radiant astonishment of living thought.” Welcome back to Between The Covers, Rae Armantrout.
Rae Armantrout: Well, I think that is probably the longest and fullest and most generous, to echo your word, introduction I’ve ever had. [laughter] Yeah, okay. Thank you. Glad to be back.
DN: Yeah. I’m happy to have you back too. As I was telling you when we were corresponding, I really love David Woo’s description of your latest book, of being death haunted but yet emanating the radiant astonishment of living thought. It makes me think back to a lecture you gave at The University of Chicago where you were reading from a work of an academic on the lyric who themselves were riffing off Nietzsche and his views on the Dionysian versus the Apollonian. You read an assertion that goes, “When representational reality returns from oblivion, it must return as a figure.” Then you answer, “Really? Must it? Must it return as a figure?” I wanted to start here because a lot of your work, at least since first, goes into and returns from oblivion of some sort; whether a diagnosis, a financial collapse, looming ecological catastrophe, aging, mortality, global pandemic, the degradation of language. You definitely don’t return with a figure in the traditional sense, but what you do return with is, I think on the one hand, a strange sense of disequilibrium and uneasiness, and on the other, a vivaciousness, a buoyant sense of the comedy of everything. It feels like, again, the word generous, a generous gallows humor perhaps that’s life-giving. I wondered how both this characterization strikes you and also how you see yourself in terms of what you do bring back from beyond the representational reality from what is being called here the oblivion, what do you bring back traveling there and then coming back for us?
RA: I really like the descriptions, David Woo’s and your own, which are sort of similar. I like what Woo says about astonishment because I think that a lot of my poems do begin with a kind of astonishment, or at least, puzzlement. Sometimes it’s ordinary, sometimes it’s not so ordinary things. I think what you said is true about disequilibrium and uneasiness. I think I have a ground state of uneasiness but it’s easily triggered by what’s around me, but on the other hand, yeah, humor sustains me in general, in my life as well as my work. I remember Elvis Costello saying in one of his songs, I used to have his albums, “I used to be disgusted but now I try to be amused.” Actually, I think it’s gone beyond that though, now I’m really terrified and depressed. But I can still laugh oddly. Does that just mean that I’m out of touch with myself? I don’t know, but I’m pretty depressed and terrified because it seems like human beings just can’t get it together to take any action about global warming even though the disasters are completely apparent now and they’re coming faster and faster. I just read in the paper just today, I didn’t mean to say this, but I just read today in The New York Times that they think that we may hit that 1.5 celsius increase that we’ve been warned with some tipping point within the next five years. There’s that. However we go, speaking of the abyss, but now I’m getting far from poetry. I don’t know if it’s going to keep being possible to come back from these things but let’s pretend that it is for now. I vaguely remember being in Chicago. I can’t remember whether I was quoting Robert Von Hallberg or Mutlu Blasing who wrote a very interesting book about the lyric, they both have. But I can’t quite understand what they meant there or why anyone would say that. It’s not so much that they mentioned a figure that bothers me, it’s this tremendous emphasis on the figure. I guess I’d have to ask, does that mean that the figure of the speaker, the figurative speaker comes back in that kind of proof rock way, but he was being satiric, I have come to tell you all, does it mean that? I guess I’m suspicious that the figure returning from the abyss or whatever is going to be some savior or avatar and I worry about that, only I can fix it, that presumed authority. I think that the mind does resist chaos. If you really break down, you’re going into chaos in a way, but you can’t hold it together so to speak in ways other than a confected figure because I think really we’re talking about confecting a figure, whether it’s the figure of the speaker or some other figure. But linguistic structure, tonal consistency, sonic consistency in the poem itself can work against chaos and can come back. If we’re talking about coming back from either depression which renders you speechless or chaos which makes you incapable of much, then there’s I think those things, the underlying unity of the poem which, like I said, can be formal or sonic or whatever, can provide whatever that figure might have provided.
DN: I was hoping maybe in the spirit of you moving from depression to being terrified, we could hear the opening poem Hang On, and then you were also wanting to read Who’s Who and Vultures, which might speak a little bit to the figure or the mystery of this figure.
RA: Yeah, okay.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Hang On]
RA: I suppose there is no identified speaker there. It’s things I saw. It’s in two parts. You wouldn’t know that unless you were looking at it but there’s a little separation between the stanza about the shopping cart on the ledge above the freeway and then the long section about the acorn barnacles used as décor. I saw the shopping cart parked on the edge of a freeway as I was driving and I thought it was empty but I guess I don’t really know why it was there. Often, we see things and we don’t fully understand them, of course, and that makes me put them in poems. But the mental process I went through was knowing how often the homeless camp on the slopes of the embankments of freeways and seeing that this was right on the edge of such an embankment, I thought about how the homeless sometimes have their possessions that they push around in shopping carts,” and I thought, “Hmm, could be that someone pushed the shopping cart to there, took out their clothes and their possessions, and went down into some kind of encampment down there.” That was what I was thinking but I don’t really know. An empty shopping cart certainly does not, in fact, seem very domestic. When I say domestic as, whether it’s just an empty shopping cart or whether it was left there by the homeless person I imagined, it’s still not exactly a good emblem of domesticity. Then “artifactual as an acorn barnacle,” well, is a barnacle an artifact? It is I guess if you take it out of the water, take it out of its context, and put it in fish tank. I think in both of these sections of the poem, there is something out of context. Also, perhaps there’s a lostness about that, about things seen out of context and the precarity perhaps, especially the shopping cart didn’t suggest the homeless to you. The barnacles are now clinging on to something on top of a toilet, by the way, I will fess up, in my bathroom, there are acorn barnacles because they’re very pretty. That’s why I know exactly what they look like. All right, I said a lot about that, maybe too much.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Vultures]
DN: Let me ask you a question that folds in something from this poem you just read, Vultures, and then we can read Who’s Who afterwards. In the same talk in Chicago, you went on to read the work of Andrew Joron; a work that you describe as one example of what you called the negative sublime in contrast to the way the lyric is often seen as having an affirmative quality to it. I like this term the negative sublime. You describe his work as a plane with subjectivity in a way where the poems can feel like they’re both spoken by no one or everyone, where they’re both pre and post-subjective, where they could feel equally nihilistic and pantheistic. I wonder if that gets at something about your work too sometimes, where usually we get multiple voices, widely different registers. For instance, in your older poem, The Way, the speaker could variously be seen as Jesus, as a madman, as a singer of a crappy pop song, and as Rae Armantrout. But of course, they’re also all Rae Armantrout, and in a way, none of them are in any sort of comprehensive way. In your book of Collected Prose, you talk about the question raised by Barthes and Foucault of who speaks when a text speaks, and you say, “There’s another way to look at the issue. According to Derrida, every text is organized around its own blind spot. Since I tend to picture things I read, I imagine this blind spot as a kind of shadow cast by the presence of the subject position within the text. Maybe my poems are jumpy, full of jump cuts, because I’m trying to move the blind spot by switching the subject position, looking at something from different angles.” Then later you continue, “Since we’re social language using creatures, of course, we’re constructed systems, but we’re also somehow the constructors of these systems. That’s the mysterious part. Maybe the border between those aspects of identity will always fall within the blind spot.” Thinking of that last section of the poem you just read, Vultures, which goes, “If you are genuinely sick, the leaves recede and the flickering holes between them come forward—not angels, but unnamed objects,” I guess I was hoping you could talk more about these flickering holes or blind spots, of how you try to evoke I think the unnamed object, the unconstructed and unrepresented, or at least create space for them to feel as if they’re there through at least one of your techniques being polyvocality, but also this high low juxtaposition at the same time.
RA: Well, let me say first of all that this was based on an actual experience where I became violently ill, sudden virus and not COVID, this was a while ago, but as I was getting better, I was looking out a window at leaves and I had this perceptual shift where instead of seeing the leaves as the objects of natural focus, I just felt like the holes around them, which were really full of the light of day, jumped out into the foreground instead of the leaves being in the foreground. I went, “Oh, so that can happen.” The leaves can be the dark things that recede and the absences can come forward. It wasn’t really frightening, it was beautiful. But I guess it was an example of what you call the negative sublime because it was a kind of acceptance, I suppose, of perceptual slide and of losing my normal bearings. I guess angels might be the kinds of figures we were talking about before because angels are messengers, they’re heralds and they come and give you the good news or the bad news, whatever. But this is not a figure that’s returning with a message, it’s an unnamed object of perception which I was surrendering to at that moment. In a way that’s personal, but it doesn’t have to be. The whole poem is really about the construction of identity. Identity is made of select experiences. I think that’s literally true. We don’t remember, don’t choose to remember, or can’t remember everything of our lives, and so the things that we remember tend to be things that will fit in our story, our life story as we see it. We are selecting, selectively creating our identity out of certain experiences we have and not others. But I’m also playing with the word select because I started out with Marriott and it’s asking how was your sleep experience, this idea that everything has to be rated and everything is commercialized, so I was using select in that sense too.
DN: Let’s hear the other poem you wanted to read specific to this notion of coming back from oblivion with the figure. I think it was Who’s Who.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Who’s Who]
RA: That’s based on a famous and gorgeous poem by Yeats called the Wandering Aengus. I can read a little bit of that so that you can get the sense of it. Basically at the start, he catches a slender trout, and it’s a shiny slender trout, so it’s already gendered at least in my mind there. Then he lays it down and goes to tend to the fire, but then it goes through a change. This is from the Yeats poem: “Someone called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl // With apple blossom in her hair // Who called me by my name and ran // And faded through the brightening air.” Then we find out at the end that he’s been pursuing this figure, this vanishing figure of the girl for decades because he imagines he’s going to catch her someday and pluck the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun. I think Yeats knows that this is a doomed quest that his speaker is on and it might be the doomed quest of poetry. It’s a beautiful poem. I don’t, by any means, mean that I dislike it. But I think that trout, like I said, was gendered from the beginning. It was always the girl. He killed the thing that sparked the figure in his mind, that sparked the phantom. He killed the thing and then he chased the phantom, which is I guess a classic male move if I could say that. [laughter] It just made me want to bring it down to earth and bring it forward in time. Yeats saw a fish as a mysterious girl which made the world seem more f*ckable. He wanted to follow her home after he killed. He actually killed the girl and then followed her in my version. I think that there are two parts of course. In the second part, the brand spokesmodel shows up, and that had a different inspiration. I actually saw a commercial on TV several times in which this spokesmodel waving a Diet Coke said “Just do you.” But the sense there is that you catch the fleeing girl and she is now this commercial spokeswoman who is hawking magic soda that’s going to make you somehow brave and original. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. Well, I think that is part of the uneasiness is the juxtaposition of the Diet Coke commercial with Yeats, getting that dissonance. But I wanted to ask you something that I guess is an intersection of poetics and process, thinking about the paradox of trying to represent the unrepresentable in language and that we are both constructed systems and the constructors of those systems, or similarly, how you’ve spoken about your distrust of metaphors but you also recognize them as fundamental to the way language happens, and so even sometimes when you’re undermining metaphor or a metaphor, you’re using metaphor. Maybe by extension of your desire to write poetry with language that both invites and is shaped by what is outside of language, you said, “I want to deal with what it means to be a finite person. To get there, I have to admit happenstance.” I wonder if that is related to a line in one of the poems in Finalists that goes, “Doubt is an out-of-body experience.” That perhaps to realize we are finite, to see around the world that we’ve constructed with ourselves at the center of this construction, we need to find a way to get outside of it, to have it be interrupted by something other. I partially bring this up because you’re on a recent podcast called Acid Horizon, a philosophy podcast, and you talked about the process of writing for you. You’ve said that you like the way the world can enter unexpectedly into a poem and then change the trajectory of the poem. In a sense, it’s breaking that tendency of self to construct. Similarly to when you’re sick, maybe your brain is tired and not constructing the leaves the way you normally would. As you discussed it further, it was clear you didn’t just like it, but in a way, you were creating circumstances for these interjections that derail the individual narrative. These interjections become co-writers in a certain way of the poem. I wondered if you could just spend a minute talking about both the process of this for you and also maybe some of the philosophy behind it.
RA: I have, as I developed as a writer, found that if you wait a while between stanzas or between sections of a poem, new things will come in. They’ll come into the experience, they’ll come into your mind, and they’ll have to be accounted for. They may change what you wrote originally. I think that happened with the Who’s Who, my take on the Yeats poem. I started out writing about Yeats, and then maybe I did that in the morning and then in the evening, the brand spokesmodel was there, and normally, that would maybe not have made it into a poem or that would have just been irritating, but suddenly, I saw her as some kind of way that the woman, the pursued woman speaks back or you could see it, you could construct it that way, you don’t have to. But I decided it would be interesting to let her be in the poem. Sometimes, of course, it happens faster. I’m writing and then suddenly bird flies by, I want to get the bird into the poem. Lately, of course, I’ve been—and you can see this in Finalists—I’ve been taking care of my twin granddaughters. They’re five now but when I was writing Finalists, they were pretty much two and three I guess. They were just coming into language. Maybe they were between one and a half and three, let’s say. They say a lot of strange and interesting things, and some of those come into the book. There’s the one called The Wound where Renee, one of my granddaughters, was pointing at her belly button and saying, “More?” in a questioning tone. That just had to go in a poem. [laughter] I think I’d already been writing the beginning of it, which has to do with wounds and centers and whether if a wound becomes a center, if part of your body is in pain, you’re going to focus on that part of your body, it becomes the center of your attention. If it’s bad enough of your world, then I was trying to reverse it and say, “Okay, does every center become a kind of wound?” I was thinking like that and then Renee said, “More?” and pointed at her belly button and the belly button is a kind of center and is also a hole. It had a certain resonance for me and I decided to let her interrupt the poem and just put her voice in there and see what I could do with it. It’s interesting because I instantly questioned it, she says “More?” and I go “More?” like a little bit with Robert Von Hallberg in the figure because I didn’t know whether she meant she was hungry and she wanted more food in there or whether she wondered if everyone had a belly button or what was going on in her mind. [laughs]
DN: To stay in the spirit of voices interrupting, when you were on book tour—I followed you on your virtual book tour—you mentioned in one of the conversations you were in a book club with Lydia Davis and I’m very curious what you read and what being in a book club with Lydia Davis is like. But first, I’m going to play a question for you from Lydia.
Lydia Davis: Rae, I’ve noticed that you seem to be constantly observing and listening and paying attention to the world around you and making notes that often later go into a poem. My question is do you ever turn off that observing state of mind completely and stop noticing?
RA: Wow. When did you get Lydia to ask a question? [laughs]
DN: The last couple weeks.
RA: Wow. That’s nice of her. Thank you. [laughs] It’s nice to hear her voice. In answer to the question, Lydia, yes, you have to, I think. I can open my perceptions up with that phrase from Freud “evenly hovering attention” and I can sometimes open my mind up to that position where you have to wait like a spider patiently but but be looking and feeling all around with your spidey senses, but you can’t do that if you’ve got to do a radio interview in a half hour, get your taxes ready, or any number of the regular things that you have to do to live, so you have to be able to turn it off and on. Sometimes I get afraid that if I turn it off, I won’t be able to turn it back on. Sometimes when it’s on, I have trouble turning it off. Maybe that’s what she’s getting at actually. Because it’s addictive, that state of mind. It’s like a hypnosis or something, or like being a special kind of stone. It’s hard sometimes to want to go back to, “Yep, going to pay bills,” really linear thinking. But you have to be able to, of course.
DN: What are you and Lydia reading right now in your book group?
RA: Well, we just finished this wonderful book called [A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey]. It’s by Jonathan Meiburg who I heard is also a rock star, the singer of some group called the Shearwater. Anyway, he’s a wonderful writer very surprisingly, well I shouldn’t say that since Nick Cave has said nice things about me, I shouldn’t say it’s surprising that rock stars are literate, but this guy is really a very good writer and it’s a wonderful book. He’s not just scientific though, he gets into the science, it’s full of personal anecdotes and natural history and just this bird that he’s talking about is called the caracara and it’s from South America. It sounds like an amazing bird. It’s a bit like a parrot but it’s a bit like a falcon. Apparently, they usually aren’t very much afraid of humans and they’ll come right up to you. They like to play. They’ll play, they’ll take your stuff, and wait to see if you come and get it back. One was in the London Zoo and it escaped and it was found on a tennis court returning balls. [laughter] They’re very playful. Anyway, it was really a fun book. We’re supposed to discuss it tomorrow actually.
DN: Oh, great. Well, say hi for me.
DN: My favorite conversation that you had for this book so far is with Monica Youn. She talks about how you’ve been a long time mentor for her. She seemed really deeply attuned, not only to the important elements that define your work, but also to subtle ways the work has changed over time. She got very granular in a satisfying way about many things, I thought. For instance, how rare pronouns used to be in your earlier poetry and how you seem to be very actively engaging with them now. But the thing I was interested in, which I think is related to some of what we’re talking about around interruption and trajectories, is how she said that your latest work seems less fragmentary, like there’s more continuity of thought. Your response was that you were home more because of the pandemic, you were writing in one place more often and for a longer period of time, rather than across many different places which was of your normal habit pre-pandemic; and that because of this, your thoughts become more extended. This feels like a great example, paradoxically because your thought is more extended, but it feels like a great example of allowing the world to unexpectedly come into a poem and change its trajectory, because here, literally, the virus comes into your life and is changing poems and the poetics of the poems. It made me wonder if there were other things. I know that the two books under the title Finalists called Threat Landscape and Finalists are together mainly for pragmatic publishing reasons, and that the latter half of the first collection was written during the pandemic and the second collection entirely under it. But to me, the second collection feels different formally, for one, more formally varied, there are zigzagging stanzas in some poems, there are prose blocks, there are poems where the sections aren’t numbered or separated by a symbol but actually have subtitles or titles. I wondered if you see this shift as a viral-caused shift also, and either way, whether there are other ways that the pandemic or the virus has changed your poetry the way Monica seems to be noticing.
RA: I do agree that it became more extended and more continuous. At first, that made me nervous I guess. Will I still be me if I do that? But then I leaned into it as they say, deciding that it was a kind of an experiment and that I would do as much of it as I could. In the second half of the book in Finalists, there are a lot of longer poems, there are some long prose poems, there are poems also with longer lines. I was experimenting with longer lines. One example, you were talking about subtitles and that reminded me of the poem Crescendo, which is an experiment in that it’s the same material written in two different ways. There’s The Light One and The Light Two. Both of them are about the view out this very window I’m looking at right now—now it’s spring—but I was looking out this window sitting in this very chair, in fact, when it was fall. The leaves that I was looking at were yellow and gold and they were soon going to be falling off, which is disturbing to a Californian like me. I was going to feel bereft. I already felt bereft. I wrote the first one, The Light One, which is in an unusual style for me. It’s in the style that I would associate with lyric poetry, that is it has a foregrounded “I”, first person speaker, it’s talky, chatty, it’s about emotions. I’m really talking to the leaves but it sounds as if I might be talking to a lover, like the classic lyric, it’s at the first person talking to a beloved even if the beloved is nature. That’s the first section. Then the second section, same tree, same color scheme, but the first person is suppressed, it only comes in once and then it’s not as an “I”, it’s as a “My” and it happens much quicker, condensed almost like an imagist poem. Then at the last part, it opens up into a more historical/political view. If you can keep all that in mind while I read it, I’ll read it now.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Crescendo]
RA: As you can see, I basically started in the same place with both of them and just did it differently, that’s kind of an experiment first time for me.
DN: I also wondered if the preponderance of plants might be another way the world was finding itself in your poems, perhaps, thanks to the virus. Because I was speaking to Ada Limón for the show and she talks about how the backyard garden became the setting or the stage for the drama of her latest collection, and that was largely simply because that’s what she was looking at.
RA: Yeah. Several of the poems that I wrote in Finalists I wrote while sitting out on my back deck, looking around. The truth is that I’ve always written a lot about plants. If you look, I don’t know about always, I don’t know about all the way back to my first book, but for decades, I’ve put plants in because somehow, I just love them, they really occupy me visually. That is not new, but I think that one thing I could say is that maybe there’s a new emphasis on them that is caused by circumstance in that five years ago, we moved up here to the Pacific Northwest from San Diego, so that’s a huge shift, very different kinds of flora to look at, different sorts of beauty. San Diego, the landscaping, none of it’s really natural, but the plants there—the palm trees, different kinds of palm trees, eucalyptus, and the tropical plants—all of that is beautiful too, sometimes a palm tree struck me as comical, but I could use that in my work. Here, at first at least, I was just blown over by the abundance of spring. I’ll tell a little story on myself. We have three lilac bushes here and everyone’s always heard of lilacs, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, yadda-yadda, my mother used to talk about how much she loved lilacs, so I thought I knew from lilacs but the first time a lilac bloomed right out this window, I went, “What is that purple thing?” I had no idea that’s what it looked like. [laughter] I just have that experience over and over now. It’s like, “What?” I’m learning nature again and that comes into the poems.
DN: Yeah. Earlier this year, I talked with the writer James Hannaham who wrote a book of image text that also has flash fiction or prose poems that are engagement with and interrogating the poems of Pessoa. Pessoa’s project is very different than yours in that he had over 70 heteronyms, they weren’t just pseudonyms, but characters with full biographies and histories that often interacted with each other. He would write from these different voices, but also the different characters, they would write prefaces for each other’s collected works, they would translate one heteronym’s poems into another language. Whereas your voices are not only within every poem together, there are many ways you undermine the authority of them. Not just by the other voices being alongside each other, contradicting each other or putting each other at a place of unease, but also putting some of the words in scare quotes and through what you call “truth effects” declarative statements with false bottoms, which later on I want to talk a little bit more about, but one effect I think your work shares with Pessoa is that both of your works raise questions about what is the self, which you’ve already referred to earlier, the construction of the self, how do selves arise, how much do they truly represent “who we are”, and how are they in relationship to language and even to cognition. I say this as a preface to wanting to read the epigraph to James Hannaham’s book, a book called Pilot Impostor. The epigraph is from a book called Reality: A Very Short Introduction by Jan Westerhoff. The epigraph goes like this: “When we say that the self is superimposed on the constituents, the question arises: ‘Who does the superimposing?’ When considering the self as the unifier of our experiential world, it makes sense to understand it along the lines of a pilot in a flight simulator. From a range of perceptual input, our brain creates the image of the world in which the self operates. We cannot step outside of our brain, so we have no way of finding out what the world beyond the intracranial simulation is like. To us, it does not even feel like a simulation. But the problems with the Cartesian theatre suggest that there is no pilot, no self, for whose benefit the simulation is put on. Rather, the collection of our physical and mental constituents acts like a total flight simulator that not only simulates the information received in the cockpit, but simulates the pilot as well. The self as the unifier of our perceptual input is a simulation or illusion, yet there is no non-simulated or non-illusory someone experiencing the simulation or having the illusion.” Thinking of Finalists, which has many poems that explicitly engage with simulation, and also back to poems like Vultures where maybe we see the cracks in the simulation because we see our reality simulated a different way when our brain is tired, we see the holes instead of the leaves; and even back to this notion of what can we bring back from oblivion if not a figure, I wondered I guess what, if anything, sparks for you around hearing this quote, whether you think there is a there there, a self beneath or beyond language and constructed perceptions of the brain.
RA: That’s a really good question. I’ve read a lot of books like this one. Since you mentioned this book to me before, I have now read this book.
DN: Oh, really?
RA: Yeah, I got it on my Kindle and read it. Earlier, years and years and years ago, I read a similar book called The User Illusion, and I’ve read a number of books about the nature of consciousness from Daniel Dennett to [Merlin Donald], so I am very interested in this and I think it’s a really good question. I’ve read enough to know that there is no central processing unit, at least one has not yet been discovered, in the brain. There’s no little lump of cells that all the other neurons connect to in some way at the center so that the cartesian theater can play out there. I’ve also heard before the experiment that he quotes, I guess, a guy named Libet, a famous experiment that showed that we’re already preparing to act, the action potentials in our muscles are already starting to gather before we’re aware that we’ve decided to do something. By the way though, that famous experiment has never been actually duplicated. But I’ve read a lot of this stuff. It makes sense to me. I know that our senses only give us a limited sense of the world. It is, like they say, to use your illusion, you don’t perceive things that you as a living being aren’t going to be able to make use of really. A bee sees a different world, we all know that. They perceive colors we don’t perceive. They perceive chemical signals that we don’t perceive. The world we see is already just a sliver of reality, if it is even that, which is I guess the question.
DN: I don’t think we can even say that it’s simply the world we see because the seeing itself is constructed. Because I was thinking of a conversation I had last year with Elisa Gabbert whose book was partially about this. Apparently, we have a literal blind spot where our optic nerve is, where there are no rods and cones. I think the size of something like a grapefruit at arm’s length that we would normally see all the time, but our brain fills in with extrapolated data. It’s not stuff that we actually see, but the brain makes that go away. Then something that happens every second of our lives, we get sound and sight at different speeds so our brain holds one of them until the other arrives and then packages them, which is not how it’s happening. Perception, which we usually use the word perceive as being unmediated in some way, is super, not only mediated, but constructed.
RA: Yes, super, super constructed. That raises the question, “Who’s doing the constructing? Who is this running the show?” But maybe “who” is the wrong word, maybe we should ask what is running the show and not who, and then it becomes a little less spooky. But I do have poems about this. Recent Thinking is about simulations and Real Life is about dreams. They both are getting at essentially that same thing. Would you like me to read one of them?
DN: Well, actually I’d love it if you’d read both, if you don’t mind.
RA: All right. I had read an article about this theory that bounces around, and it really does among physicists, among philosophers, that perhaps the whole world, the whole universe is a simulation and how would we know. There are some things that indicate that maybe it is. For instance, they talk about the unreasonable efficacy of math, of our math which we invented. Why does it fit the universe so well? There are a lot of possible answers to that, but the simulation thing is one. I had just read an article about that. But I was also thinking, as I work my way through it, a couple of questions like if we’re in the simulation created by a more advanced civilization, are they in the simulation created by yet more advanced civilization? [laughter] That’s an infinite regress. As soon as you get into an infinite regress, you’re already in trouble. It’s that “Who’s doing this?” question. Not only that, what are the morals of it? Which I get to in the end. This is Recent Thinking.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Recent Thinking]
RA: I guess if you really thought you were living in a simulation, you would want to test the limits of the game. [laughs]
DN: Yeah. Could we hear Real Life too?
RA: Sure. This poses the question in terms of dreams, which is something I’ve wondered about for a long time.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Real Life]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rae Armantrout read from her latest collection, Finalists. Thinking of this question of life as a flight simulator with or without a pilot, it makes me think of another thing you said in your collected prose: “Experience is double. Doubleness is the essence of consciousness,” and perhaps similarly, Lyn Hejinian says, “The ‘personal’ is already a plural condition. Perhaps one feels that it is located somewhere within, somewhere inside the body–in the stomach? the chest? the genitals? the throat? the head? One can look for it and already one is not oneself, one is several, incomplete, and subject to dispersal.” It also makes me think of the opening to your poem Array, “A human begins by claiming to be something else,” and then later, “This is called capture or entrainment.” Last time we talked a lot about quantum physics, and this time we’re talking much more about cognitive science, but I wondered if this doubleness, the personal is already a plural condition, and when you go looking for its origin, you already aren’t yourself, or that consciousness is essentially at its essence double, if that’s related in your mind to what we’ve been discussing.
RA: Array really started from practical observation taking care of the girls: “A human begins by claiming to be something else: a red bird in a picture book; a little red Corvette.” The little red Corvette wasn’t something. That’s, of course, a Prince song, but a red bird in a picture book is the kind of thing that a kid says, “I’m that.” Since they’re twins, they often ask each other. One of them was there was an airplane character in one story they were reading and Sasha said to her sister, “Is that me, Renee? Am I that?” and pointed at the airplane. I don’t know why but people, universally as they’re constructing themselves, seem to want to find, here we go again, a figure outside themselves to identify with. That’s how a human begins. This is known as capture or entrainment. “How will she split the differences?” That’s the next line. I won’t read the whole thing. Lyn’s quote was talking about the differences. Once you split yourself to start looking for yourself, it always amuses me when people say they’re going to find their voice, that’s the same kind of thing. It’s like it’s over there and I’m over here and I’m going to trot over there and find it. I think people are constantly abstracting themselves from themselves and then going to find themselves which is a very human thing to do.
DN: I want to spend more time with that impulse. But before we do, I wanted to return briefly to the notion of letting life in to interject and redirect art making. Another thing Lyn Hejinian said once about your work, she described it as, “Exploring the way events of the fleeting moment enter and alter the present, the result isn’t abstract in the least. It seems very practical. It’s a sort of ‘realism’. The perennial bifurcating realism of ever-changing parameters.” I love this description of the perennial bifurcating realism, which also has this repeated doubleness to it. But I also wanted to talk about what feels like, on the surface, a departure from realism, though I wonder really if it is or if maybe the real is surreal, but these poems are full of ghosts, angels, phantom limbs, illusions, simulations, mistaken identities, and as we just learned, dreams. One poem has the great line, “It’s true dreams have no meaning, dreams are meaning,” but also all this feels connected to doubleness; a sense of haunting, an overlay and echo of things that either are or aren’t there. Maybe again it goes back to the pilot also. But I wondered if you could speak to this thread going through these two books of what seems like the surreal or the unreal.
RA: It’s true that comes into my poems a lot, not just in this book but going back a long ways. The word God comes into my work quite often too, but I’m not really a theist, so it’s hard to say why it does. I was raised with religion. I was actually raised as a Fundamentalist, so God was a big presence when I was a kid. I was raised knowing the Bible, I’m glad that I was actually because it gives you a lot of literary references. I don’t believe in ghosts either, but there are a lot of these presences in my work. I think that we are, or I at least, feel haunted by meaning, by the idea that there’s a meaning, that things have a meaning. It’s like meaning is the ghost. It’s the thing that is or isn’t there. Things may or may not mean anything. You can ascribe a meaning to them. But we feel, I think I could speak for other humans here, I tend to do that, so we just feel driven to find meanings in the things around us. I’m no exception to that. But I think that’s a kind of haunting. I’m not sure what we’re looking for when we do that. Also, when we compare things, especially in poetry, when we say one thing is like another, when we use similes, what good is that really? How does the second noun help the first noun? How does the third noun help the second noun? It’s like we’re chasing meaning up or down a ladder with all these different rungs of synonyms on them, but just like in Yeats’s poem of the vanishing girl, we never really get there because we’re never finished. We might feel finished, you finish writing a poem and you think you got it but then the next day, you read it and you didn’t really get it, not entirely. It is an instant and a continuing chase. I think that’s the haunting.
DN: Why don’t we hear the poem Ghost World as one of many examples of this less than real or more than real or unreal?
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Ghost World]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rae Armantrout read from her latest book, Finalists. To return to this phenomenon we’re puzzling over, around why we have this inclination to point outside of ourselves and then find ourselves there and then return, I’m going to propose something or a talk about something that’s going to seem like I’m traveling far from what we’re talking about, but I myself will return. I’m going to point outside and then come back. I remember in an interview from your past where someone asked you about beauty and poetry. You said you thought our desire for beauty was part of what defined us, that you thought contrary to the predominant theories, that what differentiates us from homo erectus was our impulse toward ornamentation. Some of the poems in Finalists are wondering what makes us human. It made me wonder if you read in this area also. Your comment made me think of a conversation that I had with a Harvard anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham many, many years ago when I used to have a health show. He had a book called Catching Fire. His theory was that what defined us as a species originally was not tool making or meat eating as the predominant theories have been, but fire; and that so much of what we are now is actually entirely dependent on fire. I’m remembering this from long ago, so I might get the specifics wrong. But for instance, from memory, that gorillas spend a really significant portion of their day chewing and have these super long intestines to process their food because of the raw food to make the nutrients available to them. But because we could make the nutrients more immediately available by using fire, we could dedicate some of our energy towards something else because the “cooking” that happens in our gut is now happening outside of us in a pot. We can have shorter intestines now and develop larger forebrains. We do this in other ways by grinding grains into flowers by fermentation, but really according to him, we had become dependent upon and co-evolved with fire. He looked at raw food communities in Germany where even though they had way more access to high nutrient foods and high quality oils and nut butters than any of our ancestors could ever dream of, people who are entirely on a raw food diet, over half the women would stop menstruating, which suggested to him that it isn’t biologically how we’re set up to be to eat only raw. At the time we talked about this, we talked about it with the framing of humans being processors, that we did these things whether it be grinding, fermenting, or heating that made the nutrients more available and that perhaps we had gone too far in modern society with processing and that’s partly why we have this epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity because we’ve taken processing beyond the beyond. But while I was preparing for this interview with you, I was starting to think about that conversation really differently, so this is now me extrapolating from Wrangham, not Wrangham himself. But if this theory is true (his theory), not only have we outsourced digestion outside of our own bodies to grow our brains, fire has also led us to lose our body hair which he talks about, so we’ve outsourced our human fur to clothes; and because we focused on our brains, we’ve also outsourced development to something outside of the womb. Because many primates—and this is also something he talked about—many primates come out right at birth very capable and coordinated and oriented. They can climb up onto their mother’s breast and immediately puzzle out breastfeeding, some even assist in their own birth sticking their hands out first and then helping with pushing. Whereas we have this unusually extended time of being utterly helpless and vulnerable, not just what some people call the fourth trimester, that first three months outside of the womb post birth, but really for many years. I guess I wonder if all of this offloading of bodily functions to things outside the body; our clothes representing our skin, our pot representing our stomach, the cradle representing the womb, if somehow this—like your suggestion around ornamentation—is related to this desire to continue to push the edge of the virtual and the simulated, if maybe why we keep creating these things outside the body, maybe there’s something about homo sapien. I don’t know if you’ve read about this, so this is an unfair question, but I do wonder if this creates any thoughts for you in hearing it.
RA: Sounds like you should write a book about it. [laughter] [You threw many ideas there.] I like where you’re going with this, how we’ve been creating the virtual world since the get-go. It’s not all about meta, although I’m worried about where we’re going, but that’s very interesting and persuasive. I think what I was saying about ornamentation and beauty can also be true without contradicting that. What I read about beauty, there is a book about this but I’m not sure I can remember the author’s name, is that it has a lot to do with female sexual selection; and that female sexual selection in a lot of species, in some species it has to do with how fit and strong the animals are—the rams that have the strongest horns and that can push the hardest—but in other species, in a lot of bird species, it’s got nothing practically to do with survival and is even sometimes counter to survival, but it’s driven by female choice. I just thought that was interesting. But speaking of things that are unnecessary and have nothing to do with survival, our sense of the beautiful, yeah, okay, that people always say, “Oh, we pick symmetrical faces for our mates because symmetry equals health,” I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I understand that argument. But what’s that have to do with loving certain color combinations, liking certain shapes, liking the light on the leaves that I’m looking at, painting? Why are we that way? Why do we spend so much time feeding our eyes and searching for things that we find beautiful? Some people spend more time admittedly doing that than others, but it seems like a very human thing to do. It, far as I know, has no convincing relationship to survival, so I just think that’s interesting. I’ve written about that elsewhere, I think in my last book a little bit.
DN: Could we hear Much and Conjugations?
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Much]
RA: That “what do you think you’re doing” is already asking you to separate your–which we do ask each other that or something like that, some version of that pretty often, and that’s really making a demand that the addressee separate himself from himself so that he can answer that “what do you think you’re doing?” Before you were just doing it, but now you have to say what you think you’re doing, you have to stand aside from what you’re doing and talk about it. That’s a demand we make on each other, which is strange and also a very human thing to do. The other one you wanted, Conjugations.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Conjugations]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rae Armantrout read from Finalists. I want to spend a little bit of time with the question of truth in a variety of ways. Your memoir is called True, which I loved, and what is true in True is that everything that is true seems in doubt. All your family stories, that they helped hide Jesse James, that your grandfather died in a snowstorm after a mysterious knock on the door, the fortune teller prophecy.
RA: Which did come true by the way. [laughter]
DN: Even something as seemingly simple as naming in names, your father’s biological father had the last name Cummings, your father’s adoptive father’s last name was Armantrout, people called your father Boats, his name was John William but he was called Bill, and as an adult, he wanted to be called Mike, and that is what his wife called him. You yourself are, in some ways, in this memoir True, lost or amidst the family myth-making, under the shadow of your mother’s idealization of outlaws, you are planning to run away to Mexico to be a bandit. You sleep with a pearl handled 22 under your bed. Later when you take LSD, you see yourself as a pastiche of imitations and reaction formations. “Most of what I called ‘me’ was a system of defensive barricades. I think sometimes that I became a poet in order to defend myself from dubious stories. I wanted to use poetry as a truth detector somehow, to separate true from false.” One of the techniques which I referred to earlier you often use is what you call the truth effect. You often create statements that you describe as having false bottoms. I wonder if you could talk about these, why you tried to create this effect, some of the techniques that you might use to achieve one, and how it relates, if it does, to this notion of poetry as a truth detector.
RA: Let me give an example. I think that is going to relate to what you were just saying. The poem Lions which is on page 101 just creates a couple of truth effects and false bottoms right off the top. I’ll just read it short.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Lions]
RA: Of course, the first two stanzas are really declarations about why lion taming exists, but they’re completely different, they’re contradictory. To me, either one of them is plausible. I’m not going to say true but I’m going to say plausible. It’s plausible that lion taming exists to make us think that the ferocity of lions is fake so we’ll feel more comfortable somehow, more reassured about things that roar, or it’s possible that lion taming exists. First of all, you would think it would be that lion taming exists to assert our sense of human mastery over the earth, but now it might be to parody it because lion taming obviously looks and is so fake, so that’s possible, maybe it’s a kind of parody. Any of these things is possible. If I had to choose one, I couldn’t. Of course, any thought is a shot in the dark. I guess that’s also a truth assertion. It’s one that I’m maybe more behind, but it too, is dubious in that any thought is a shot in the dark. Well, that’s a metaphor and I’m untangling metaphors here or putting them in question. Now a thought is a watched pot.
DN: Is part of the truth effect sonic? Because when I hear you say it, it feels good to hear it. There’s something that coheres in the “any thought is a shot in the dark” that feels convincing or seductive.
RA: Yeah, I know. I think that’s absolutely true. I think if something sounds good, it’s easy to believe. This is probably something that Trump has learned. No, I hate that I’m comparing myself to Trump, oh my god, no-no-no. [laughs] I don’t want to do that. But no, I think that’s right, if something sounds good, there’s the beauty effect again, if it sounds good, it also sounds true, at least for a second, at least until you question it. I think it’s healthy to question the things that you hear that are made to sound good. You hear a lot of things in commercials that sound good, but you should think twice about them. A thought could be a watched pot. [laughs]
DN: Yeah. Let’s, to your chagrin, spend a little bit more time with Trump. [laughter] Another line in your memoir is “My life was leading me to the conclusion that received opinion was my enemy.” That makes me think of one of the ways you recount the origins of the language school of poetry. One of the stories about the origins of the language poets is around the way language was used to spin the Vietnam War, and a subsequent attempt with language with language poetry to look at the truth effects of language, to destabilize the authority of the speaker, to reveal the weird ways language operates and influences that are usually hidden from us. Much as you talked with Monica Youn about how the virus affected your writing, I’d like to talk about the Trump effect on language and truth, and whether it has affected your poems and poetics. For me, when I think now of the Vietnam War era spin compared to what we’re faced with, the former seems very quaint in comparison because now there’s an entire industry built to sustain, not just spin but an alternate reality of “facts” where you could constellate “sources” to defend this alternate position. You can live in a universe of spin now that denies what used to be considered, agreed upon fundamental truths, whether the world is round, whether evolution exists. I bring this up because other artists and performers find themselves reconsidering how to be in this climate. Many comedians ask, “How do you do satire when the world is now the joke?” I have guests come on who write prose who say they’re now mostly writing non-fiction because what can fiction do in a world that is already so fictional? I wondered, in this light, with all the ways you work with truth effects and destabilizing the sense of a speaker’s relationship to truth, if with all the ways cultural relativism, which arose on the left, has now been weaponized by the right against it with the world itself feeling like a truth effect, if this has changed your relationship to writing and/or created new impulses, or maybe made you step outside of your poetics and go, “Do I want to slightly or radically reorient myself because of the atmosphere that I’m working in?” I’m just curious, I want to compare it to the virus, something else has entered this sphere now, how is that changing the trajectory of the poem, if at all?
RA: Well, I’m with you. I understand and I think that’s very true, that is where we are right now and that is where I am too, wondering about that. Because the idea that you can use irony or found language or one of those devices to unpack and reveal the lies that the powerful might want to spin now seems naive because all right, you’ve unpacked it, there it is, there it is out in plain day, still no one does anything about it. Global warming is now completely obvious, the disasters are coming one after another, the fires, the hurricanes, nobody’s doing anything about it. The idea that just showing that something is happening is going to make it change implies that there is a benign parent watching who will come in or that the state is benign and will go, “Oh, I didn’t know that before, but now that you mention it, it’s very clear now,” maybe it always was that we were just too young to see it, but it’s very clear now that is not the case. Trump can just say, he said it during the campaign, but now it’s completely obvious that it’s true, that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. He could, it’s true apparently. In that world, what do you do? I guess Jon Stewart quit comedy because he couldn’t stay ahead of it maybe. He’s an example and now he’s doing more direct activism. One of the best examples recently of a parody that got traction is this whole Birds Aren’t Real movement.
DN: Yeah, I know. I love that.
RA: [laughs] I love that and that is actually pulling the chains of these QAnon people. Now the Birds Aren’t Real guy is getting death threats apparently. I’m not sure that’s a good result but at least he’s having an impact because it’s pretty obvious to people that Birds Aren’t Real is about as believable as the QAnon premises. But anyway, what can we do as poets? I don’t have a version of Birds Aren’t Real, really, [laughter] but I think to some extent, I just keep pointing out what I see because that’s what I do, that’s the way I make it clear to myself, that’s the way I stay sane. There, I could read poems that do that, but I think there are other things we can say about what poetry can do too, besides unpacking truth effects that are really wise. There’s a way too that poetry can help us now maybe survive because it can play. I think even when it’s in the midst of dark material and dark times, that poetry is somehow inherently playful because of the way that it can spin and move, and spin in a good way, move among different discourses, and pick and choose and combine and recombine, recombine in creative ways. I think play has to be flexible and poetry can be flexible, maybe in a way that it’s harder for fiction because fiction has to—and I like fiction I read fiction—but fiction has to do this whole worlding and then it has to create characters and set them in motion, and once they have this trajectory, you can’t just say, “Never mind, what about this?” [laughs] It’s easier in poetry to be playful, I guess, with language in a way that can be pointed but it can also be joyous. That’s one approach. Another approach, I guess, which is the opposite, is that you can just take the root of being very careful with language as opposed to, and in contrast to, the great carelessness that we see now in Trump’s speech, but not just Trump, all of these people, these pundits mostly on the right and politicians who will obviously say anything and then don’t care what they’re saying. I think poets always care what they’re saying, so we’re a counter example in that way, we’re always thinking about the words. Even if we’re not saying something that we think is true, even if we’re saying something else, we believe in the word choices we’re making, or else we try harder and do something else. What else? I guess the world is still beautiful so we can elegize the world as the beauty of it is probably drying up. We can try to record what’s happening. That’s what I’m thinking of. I wish I could do that, just make a record of what’s happening, but I don’t know if I can do that or not. Because I think a lot’s going to be happening soon.
DN: Yeah. It’s just interesting, it makes me think of when I was talking to Arthur Sze who doesn’t write a climate change poem, but because he writes about mushrooms, for instance, or mushroom hunting over 50 years, it ends up tracking climate change and everything else. There’s all this recording. Through the passage of time, his poetry becomes a record in a way also.
RA: Yeah. I do believe in doing that. I think there are still things that poets can do. I don’t have the illusion that it will make any difference, not that let’s change the world with our poetry, I never thought that. But at least, I think all writers are leaving a kind of record that may be valuable at some point when civilization is really collapsing and struggling.
DN: You’d said that you had a handful of poems that this engagement with the Trump effect made you think of, is there one or two you’d like to read?
RA: Talking Points is an appropriate place to launch from. Talking Points is on page 158 if you have it.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Talking Points]
RA: Speaking of astonishment, I started this at the point when Tyson Foods was blaming the way the virus was spreading among its workers on their living conditions which were crowded. Now why would their living conditions be crowded? Because Tyson Food didn’t pay them enough to have separate apartments. So cynical, such a cynical use of language. That’s where this starts. Processing plant blames living conditions. Incredulity, that’s my incredulity, mimics boredom, I suppose because I’m listening to so much of this, it’s just outrage fatigue. That’s a poem that I guess just points to the problem, like “There” has a certain amount of astonishment in it. In the new manuscript that I think I’ve just finished, and I’m going to send to my publisher over the next couple days, there’s a poem called Seeing Reason that’s exactly about the problems that this environment raises for writers. I thought I’d read that. Really, it’s about me and how I write even though it uses the pronoun she. Quite often when I want to write really about myself, I put it in the third person for whatever reason.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Seeing Reason]
DN: Thank you for reading that. Maybe to just do a brief pivot into the comedy of the horror, a long time before Trump, you were in conversation with Tom Beckett who was interviewing you. You respond to him at one point and you say, “I think you’ve been trying to talk about social space, the way we connect with each other in language and poems from the beginning, and I’ve been resistant. Why do I resist? Really, it comes down to the fact that I don’t have much that’s original to say on that subject. Right now I feel pretty pessimistic about social space. Contemporary American culture is such a degraded linguistic environment. Have you seen that Taco Bell ad where a Chihuahua dressed like Pancho Villa or Che Guevara encourages a cheering peasant army to try the revolutionary new taco, the Gordita, so much for the avant-garde? What do we do? Stop watching television someone might say. But this stuff is so telling. What do we do? Put it in poems and interviews and perpetuate it? Hope that the culture can get its tongue so far into its cheek that it will implode?” I love this but I do think that one thing that’s interesting about what you do do is that I think you do allow the degraded linguistic environment into your poems, you don’t wall your poems off from this language. I don’t think you’re letting the degraded linguistic environment in to perpetuate it as you fear that might do in this conversation, but it feels like you bring it in to stage it and then interrogate it. I guess I wondered whether you saw that as true, that maybe like the virus or a totalitarian buffoon, you let the revolutionary new taco into the poem in some subversive fashion.
RA: Yeah. I can’t help it because I write about whatever interests me or whatever upsets me, whatever puzzles me. These things are that. They interest me. They upset me. They are part of my environment so they are going to enter in. I guess that’s the compact that we were talking about before is that everything that is real that’s part of my perceptual environment can potentially come into the poem, and so those things are certainly part of the environment. Some people ignore that, but then aren’t they giving a very partial picture of the world?
DN: Well, as we start to approach an ending, I want to make sure that we talk about what seems like you becoming steadily more and more of an ecological poet for lack of a better word. Perhaps the biggest way you push against the way the right has weaponized the truth with alternate facts is the undeniable way the world is on fire in your poems. In your last book, Conjure, you said that you wrote the story of fossil fuels and climate change using horror movie tropes because they use the same beats, where we know what will happen if we do what we know we shouldn’t but we do it anyway, we can’t help but do it just like in a horror movie. I’m curious if you feel like it’s a similar relationship in Finalists or if it’s a different one. It feels different to me perhaps, but I’m not sure that I have the words for it, but talk to us about your relationship to the ecological in Finalists.
RA: To some extent, it’s a continuation, and then to some extent, perhaps it is different. Certainly, it gets nothing but more acute and there are quite a few poems here that focus on fire. Now that I’ve moved up to the Pacific Northwest, we have smoke season. I thought I was getting away from that, but no, now August is smoke season. Sometimes the air is really hazardous. It doesn’t really burn right around here but as you know, you live in Portland and Portland almost burned, who could even imagine that? I was used to that living in San Diego. One time, they were going to evacuate San Diego on navy ships, can you imagine? But one time, they were almost going to evacuate our neighborhood. We were like next and they said to go to the stadium if we were told. This was after Katrina and I’m like, “No, no stadium, not going to a stadium.” Anyway, yeah, there are a number of poems that invoke fire. The end of Too Much Information is about packing up after there’s a fire. One that I was going to read, I think fire is only implied in this one but the weather certainly becomes a character, as well as the kind of postmodern attitudes that we’ve been talking about and what to do with them in this century.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Riddance]
RA: In that last stanza, I don’t know what a reader will picture ever, but what I pictured, because I’ve seen this, is fire coming over a ridge or there being only one ridge between you and the fire. Your situation when the fire comes is you are united with the last town that burned.
DN: When you think of the title of these two books, Finalists, normally when you think of the word finalist, you think of something achieved of excellence and the acknowledgement of that achievement. That’s obviously not the case of this book. David Woo says that you title the new collection after a headline from an online article about nature photography. The line is “These wildlife finalists will take your breath away.” Woo says, “Devoid of context, the headline is deliciously insipid but becomes profound the more one contemplates it, calling to mind the extinction of species and the fact that evolution makes all living creatures ‘wildlife finalists.’” But I wonder if you mean it in a different way that maybe we’re the last generation, the final generation to live on a mostly inhabitable planet. But I’m wondering if you could speak into Finalists for us.
RA: Well, that’s basically is what I meant. I did get it from the wildlife photography program, he’s right about that. I heard that phrase “These wildlife finalists will take your breath away.” That’s, again, astonishment. [laughter] I’m just, “Really? Well. Wildlife finalists because so many species are going extinct,” but then I don’t think we’ll be the last human generation but I think we might be the last generation. I think even in my lifetime, which won’t be as long as yours, we’re starting to see temperatures in some places that are unsustainable without air conditioning. That’s been happening in Pakistan just recently. I think in your generation, I’m not saying it’ll be the last generation, I don’t think that’s true, but I think the climate is becoming unstable so rapidly that society is going to start coming apart. Once society comes apart, I don’t know how many generations we have left. I do worry about my granddaughters, which I shouldn’t go on and on about this but we are trying to teach them to prepare them for the world as it is, but the world that they’re going to live in is not the world as it is. That’s what I meant by Finalists, is that we’re the last generation, at least, to live as we live now is alive, I would think at this moment.
DN: Maybe it’s fitting we started with oblivion and we’re ending with Finalists. One thing Monica Youn noticed about this new collection was how much “we” appears in the book and that we see the word “we” most often and most urgently when you are talking about climate change. She asked you if this had to do with humanity or community and you said, “Well, we are screwed. I guess this is some sort of community,” [laughter] which very much captures your humor I think in your poetry. The first line of your first poem Hang On is “Domestic as an empty shopping cart parked on a ledge above a freeway.” Obviously, as you’ve mentioned, this is the last thing we think of with the word domestic, which we might think of as being safe and protected. But maybe we are all the screwed barnacles hanging on now, but let’s end nevertheless with a different vantage point, not of the barnacle, but of the Panicle. Maybe you could introduce us to Panicle and panicles and then bring us home with a reading of Panicle.
RA: Okay. I think that’s a good idea. A panicle—I did look this up before I used it as a title. I’m trying to remember now—it’s a flower form. I think it’s a flower made of flowerettes. This poem was one of the ones that you were talking about, the kinds of poem that was written in the backyard during the first year of the pandemic. Really, it was written about this time of year, two years ago. It was written mainly sitting in my backyard, so the things that are mentioned here are things that I saw or heard then. One thing that’s unusual about this poem for me is that the phrase “the hope” appears four times. It’s not unproblematic, but it’s also not ironic. Anyway, I’ll just read the poem.
[Rae Armantrout reads a poem called Panicle]
DN: Thank you so much for coming back on the show today, Rae.
RA: Thank you for inviting me.
DN: We are talking today to the Poet Rae Armantrout about her latest collection, Finalists. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio, Rae contributes a reading of poems of her next as of yet, still unpublished book for us. These poems join readings by everyone from Layli Long Soldier, to Pádraig Ó Tuama, to Jorie Graham, to Ada Limón. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, help ensure the future of conversations, just like this, by joining the community of Between The Covers listener-supporters at patreon.com/betweenthecovers, where you can check out a wide variety of potential benefits of doing so; including potentially the bonus audio. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.