Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Rosmarie Waldrop InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: If you like Between The Covers, you may also enjoy the American Masters: Creative Spark Podcast from the makers of the signature PBS series, American Masters. How do the world’s greatest artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers find their creative spark? Every episode of American Masters: Creative Spark takes you inside their creative process. Each week, an artist, like documentarian Errol Morris, Poet Jericho Brown, musician Kim Gordon, and filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan goes in depth on the creation of a single work. American Masters: Creative Spark is available free wherever you get your podcasts. Today’s episode is also brought to you by the Tin House Workshop Craft Intensives, taking place between December 2nd and December 6th. This winter series features multiple three-hour long classes led by Tin House book authors and workshop alumni, and offers a dose of inspiration and practical advice that combines close readings, discussions, and in-class writing exercises. Applications are rolling with tuition waivers available. Please visit tinhouse.com/workshop to learn more. It’s with particular joy that I present today’s episode with a poet whose work is close to my heart, Rosmarie Waldrop, a poet who is also the translator of the work of another writer close to my heart, Edmond Jabès. It’s been a joy to be immersed in both of their works over the last half year in anticipation of this day. A conversation that takes place between my home in Portland, Oregon and hers in Providence, Rhode Island. A conversation that really gets at the heart of the mysteries of not only writing—whether you are a prose writer or a poet or a translator—but the existential questions of life itself and how those questions relate to both language and identity. For the bonus audio, Rosmarie reads her translation of Edmond Jabès’ Adam, or the Birth of Anxiety, a remarkable section from The Book of Shares. The bonus audio archive has become an immensely rich reservoir of material with everything from Alice Oswald, reading new work and from the Book of Job, Jorie Graham, reading rain poems from Robert Creeley and Edward Thomas, Kaveh Akbar, reading a poem he loves that didn’t make it into his latest collection, and Jen Bervin, reading from The Letters of Paul Salon, then work of hers written under his influence. To find out more about how to subscribe to the bonus audio and the other many potential rewards of becoming a listener-supporter of Between The Covers from rare collectibles from Ursula K. Le Guin to Nikky Finney to becoming an early reader for Tin House, receiving books months before they’re available to the general public, you can check all of this out and more by heading over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with poet and translator, Rosmarie Waldrop.
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.”
DN: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, essayist, editor, publisher, novelist, and most notably, poet and translator, Rosmarie Waldrop, studied literature and musicology at the University of Würzburg and at the University of Freiburg before immigrating to the United States in the 1950s. In 1961, her and Keith Waldrop (her poet translator husband) started Burning Deck Press, which for over a half century, published experimental poetry and prose from writers such as Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, William Bronk, Robert Coover, Lyn Hejinian, Barbara Guest, Harry Matthews, and Paul Auster, just to name a few. In 1966, Waldrop earned her PhD at the University of Michigan with her thesis on experimental poetics becoming the book Against Language? Since 1969, Waldrop has lived in Providence, Rhode Island, has taught at Wesleyan, Tufts and Brown. She’s the author of over 20 poetry collections, including A Key into the Language of America, Split Infinites, Love, Like Pronouns, Curves to the Apple, Driven to Abstraction, and her selected poems, Gap Gardening, which came out in 2016 from New Directions. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006 and was given the America Award in Literature for a lifetime contribution to international writing in 2021. She’s also the author of two novels, including The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter, reissued by Dorothy in 2019 and four books of essays, and criticism, including her collected essays, Dissonance (if you are interested). In her book Lavish Absence, recalling and re-reading Edmond Jabès, which is somehow part memoir, part biography, a meditation on translation and a meditation on friendship, forged through the act of translation. Rosmarie Waldrop has translated innumerable books from French and German into English. These include the collected prose of Paul Celan, Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan by Jean Daive, which came out last year from City Lights books, several books by Jacques Roubaud and several more by Emmanuel Hocquard. But Waldrop is best known for her lifelong engagement with the work of Egyptian-Jewish writer and exile, Edmond Jabès, having translated 14 of his books, including The Book of Questions, The Book of Resemblances, The Book of Margins, and The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion. Waldrop received the 2008 Pen Award for Poetry in Translation, was nominated for the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, and was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for her significant contribution to the enrichment of French cultural inheritance. Rosmarie Waldrop is here today on Between The Covers to talk about her latest book of poetry, a book 10 years in the making, The Nick of Time, out from New Directions. The Poet Billy Mills wrote the following about one sequence included in Waldrop’s new book, a sequence called White Is a Color: “In what must be less than 1000 words, Waldrop says more about the human condition and how we explore it through words than most of us would manage in a thousand pages.” Ryan Ruby for the Poetry Foundation adds, “In Waldrop’s new book, The Nick of Time, which collects the prose sequences written since Driven to Abstraction and contains some of the finest writing of her distinguished career, temporality, always an underlying concern of her work, moves unmistakably to the fore. As with some of her previous books, Waldrop deploys the vocabularies of physics and the philosophy of language. But in The Nick of Time, these two dimensions of temporal experience are harnessed to a third: the existential dimension.” Finally, Publishers Weekly says in its starred review, “In her first new collection in a decade, Waldrop astonishes with poems that explore uncertainty and grief, and reckon with time, language, and memory. As her husband’s memory begins to fail, Waldrop turns to the intangible and abstract: ‘A sentence with the word ‘time’ in it already contains a shadow. Of the soul leaving the body.’” Welcome to Between The Covers, Rosmarie Waldrop.
Rosmarie Waldrop: Thank you very much, David, for this lovely introduction.
DN: Before we talk about The Nick of Time in particular, I thought we could start with a couple aspects of your work that run through much of your work to orient listeners who may be encountering your work as a poet for the first time. The first is the prose poem. You started out writing in lines but for many decades, your work has mainly been in prose poetry, so much so that New Directions has called you the modern maestra of the prose poem. In your essay collection Dissonance (if you are interested), you have the essay titled, Why Do I Write Prose Poems (When My True Love Is Verse). As part of that move from lineated poetry to prose poetry, you’ve said that you’ve given up stress for distress. I thought this would be a great place to start. Tell us why prose poetry has captivated you in such an enduring way as a poet.
RW: As you said, I started with writing verse forms, lineated poems. For a long time, I did one particular trick. I tried to have the object of one sentence flip into being the subject of the next, which I love because it made for great speed. I’ll just read one example, just to make it concrete. For instance in this book, which is called The Road Is Everywhere or Stop This Body, which is all about sitting in a car, commuting between Providence and Middletown, Connecticut where I taught at the time. It’s sitting in a car. “Exaggerations of a curve exchanges time and again beside you in the car pieces the road together with night moisture.” You see how the “exchanges time and again” but then “time and again beside you in the car pieces the road together.” We have a flow and at the same time, we have an interruption. The sentences are not quite grammatical. It just goes on. I love this mixture of flow and fragmentation, flow and stop. Actually, that’s characteristic for all of my writing because that’s also the way the two impulses I have. But I love this because of the great speed but after a while, after two books of it, it felt constrained because it was all main clauses all the time. They got a hankering for subordinate clauses and such. I thought prose was the solution and first tried to write a novel, which I eventually did but it took me an enormous time because I really didn’t know what I was doing at all but I was working on prose, even if it didn’t work. That felt like a liberation because there was a kind of open space rather than a main clause highway. This open space was, at the same time, anxiety producing because it was so open. There were no guidelines. This is a wonderful phrase by Charles Bernstein by the way.
DN: Oh, really.
RW: I gave up the stress in this case. I’m thinking of say a regular meter with its stresses, a boxed in form of rhyme and meter for distress of the open, of the unselected basically. There’s an anxiety to that because you don’t know where to go. Actually, the phrase I like most of that and I pulled that out because I knew I would misquote it if I just try to remember, this is a phrase by Emily Dickinson, which is from a letter and goes like this: “Moving on in the Dark like loaded Boats at Night, though there is no Course, there is Boundlessness.” The strange thing about that quote is the “though” because in a way, no cause and boundlessness go in the same direction but she puts this “though” in, which really puts a different valuation on these two phrases. The “though” is negative that is anxiety making. There is no course but there is boundlessness. That is felt as a positive.
DN: I like that you brought up the so in the middle of this because you’ve also talked about how you’re taking the right margin of a lineated poem, you read us early lineated lines from you. You’re taking the right margin of a lineated poem and bringing that into the middle of the sentence. The instability or the disjunction of the line break is now at the heart of sentence syntax, which is a strange place to find that energy of a line break, even though there is no line break. I wonder if that “so” is related to that or if that’s also what you mean by distress, particularly with the sentence versus the line, we expect a certain sense of cohesion or harmony, and not to discover this distress in the middle of it.
RW: Yes. It is the stop that we expect at a period that just doesn’t function that way. But I mostly think of that period in the middle of sentences basically, I think of it mostly as a rhythmic element. It changes the way you read but at the same time, it stops you. It’s an irritant because you think the sentence ends, then as you try to read the next, you find no, it actually continues the last sentence. This is so crucial to me that I marked an example from the new book. It’s from the sequence In Pieces. Actually, it’s starting with a quote from Robert Creeley. Maybe I need to read the whole little poem. The poem’s called The Problem With Pronouns. “All the bodies, one by one, the measure. Says Robert Creeley. Composite, containing simples, as surely as words are pleasure. The door, the white door, all the doors. To the small range of wavelengths called the visible world. We’ve attached names. So I could speak to you. Now something in the middle has separated. The word ‘I’ sits on my shoulders. Ready for carnage. But what I want is the door, the white door, all the doors. To the small range of wavelengths.” “You’d think all the doors.” (period) that stopped “To the small range of wavelengths called the visible world.” But then “We have attached names.” Again, they are all connected and at the same time, they are two stops within basically one long sentence. It’s an irritant and also, it slows us down. I think that is extremely important because we tend to read fast. We tend to read for the underlying meaning and don’t pay attention to the words. One of the main things of poetry is to slow us down and to pay attention to the words, to their sound, to their body, and to their multiple meanings. The indeterminacy within the words, which irritates the philosophers but which the poets love. [laughter]
DN: Yes. I want to spend more time with speed and time, this notion of slowing down, but before I do, I wanted to just bring up the other throughline through much of your work, which I think you’ve already touched on a little bit, which is the notion of betweenness and of the gap between things, being a place of generative possibility. For instance, not only that you live between two languages where Americans notice your German accent when speaking English and Germans say you speak German well for an American, but you also say in the latest collection, “I search the cracks between my English and German for more words than either has.” This notion of looking for more words that are absent in both languages feels like both a question of betweenness in the gap also. Of course, the prose poem whose existence seems to include an irresolvable tension or contradiction is itself a between form. It falls in a gap between genres. But this notion of a generative impulse from within the nothingness in between and that you’re seeking for these more words in the nothingness, you’ve called this Gap Gardening, which is the name of your selected poems. You’ve also quoted Charles Olson who said, “What is, is no longer things but what happens between things,” which seems to suggest that action and motion are usurping matter as substance, then in your lament for Barbara Guest in the latest collection, there’s the line, “It is the connecting between moments. Not the moments themselves, that is consciousness.” Let’s spend a little bit of time with this attraction to gaps, silence, emptiness, and betweenness as actually paradoxically the place where creation happens.
RW: This is a huge question. [laughter]
DN: A lifelong question even.
RW: Yeah. I hardly know where to start but maybe with some background, this is a notion that you find everywhere in the 20th century. You find it in science. Matter has dissolved into forces, vectors, and what happens between them. Psychology has gone into thinking of mental states as a balance of vectors and forces. That’s basically the image of the electromagnetic field that, as far as the arts are concerned, has taken over from the dominant image of organic form, the work of art as an organism. But in the 20th Century, this changes and the field becomes a very dominant form. You just already quoted words that are very resonant with Whitehead who is of course, Olson’s great mentor. There is no longer any substance, action, and motion but what exists are occurrences. An event is a nexus of occurrences. That’s what our world is. This is fascinating because we still, to a large extent, do think in terms of matter, of stones, of objects. But then pound, for instance, and pound thinking of Fenollosa who spoke about the Chinese written character in which he says, “A noun is only the end point of an action and what matters in language is between.” This is great because also, the linguists tell us that what is very important is the spaces between words. We can’t recognize words without the spaces between them—or we can with a great deal of effort. There are poets who have used that to run all the words together, which requires a great effort to read. But so you have it in language, the poets as you quoted Olson. You have it in science. It’s just everywhere. With my own situation between languages, between cultures, I am right in the middle of this paradigm shift. This is a very strong feeling I have. Of course, this also resonates with translation between languages. That means, of course, slightly bad faith if I say I’m looking for the words that don’t exist but there is this feeling, [laughter] the space between languages is fascinating. There is no one-to-one correspondence. It’s all very shifty but interesting to explore.
DN: I love that. I have a feeling that this is going to come up a lot when we’re talking later on too, just spontaneously because it feels like it’s a connective tissue, I mean maybe paradoxically, the gaps in the absence is the connective tissue. But I wanted to return to this question of slowness also or a question of time because Ryan Ruby for the Poetry Foundation wrote what I thought was a really incredible piece about your latest book.
DN: It asks among other things, what exactly is prose poetry, and by extension, what exactly is poetry? In that investigation, he uncovers something about your work in general but also something particularly essential to your latest book I think. In his piece which is called Mind the Gaps, in which I encourage people to seek out, Ruby says, “Prose poem begins life as a paradox and a provocation.” That unlike free verse, which eventually assimilated into the wider current of poetry, the prose poem remained marginal until quite recently in history. That’s perhaps because prose poetry calls into question what poetry is whereas free verse is still lineated and thus at least formally, it suggests a continuity with the poetry that came before it. Ruby asks, “If poetry is written in prose, then in what sense is it poetry?” He points out that we’ve forgotten that at first, meter was not a formal feature of poetry at all but rather a functional aspect of oral literature pre-writing to aid in the memorization of large amounts of information. That the earliest poetic written texts on Greek papyrus had no punctuation and no lineation. That even as late as Beowulf, which had no line breaks, line breaks often had more to do with the limits or constraints of a particular media technology that one wrote on rather than what was being written itself. After walking us through this history, which he does in much more depth than I’m doing now, he asks, “If the presence of meter rhyme and lineation aren’t necessary for something to be poetry, what defines something as poetry or at least defines something as ‘poetic?’” Then he finally suggests its poetry’s distinct relationship to time. He quotes Jeff Dolven who says, “Poetry is the art form that strives toward instantaneity and all at onceness. Whereas prose unfolds in time.” In the intro to Gap Gardening, you say, “Gap gardening which, moved inward from the right margin, suspends time,” which makes me think maybe you were pleased by Ruby’s analysis.
RW: Yes, indeed.
DN: But before we talk about The Nick of Time, talk to us more about anything that this sparks in you around poetry’s relationship to time.
RW: I think this is a right spot on “a poetry tries to be instantaneous.” It does this by leaps, by condensation, by not putting in all the steps as in an argument, in a continuous argument. Actually, Jacques Roubaud put that very nicely, he said, “You can always go farther but not always step by step.” Poetry is the situation where you want to take leaps, you want to condense things. I think it’s just condensation, that’s one of the characteristics of poetry. Of course, this comes out of being German maybe because in German, dicht means to condense, making kites, making tents. It’s used in engineering. You say dicht is making it dense but it also means writing poems, making language dense, tight, which means you need to cut out a lot of steps. You need to cut out a lot of air. That is the main sense in which I think of poetry. That can happen in prose, as well as in verse.
DN: Yes. He points out prose, what he would point to as poetic, that is also suspending time, that it’s working against the unfolding of time, which I think then we come to your prose poetry, which is doing just that.
RW: Trying to. [laughter]
DN: I love this idea that by moving the distress of the line break to the middle of the sentence, which you do in a variety of ways and you mentioned one of them putting a period literally in the middle of a sentence, that you’re disrupting the sentence, therefore, narrative’s foremost building block, and thus because narrative is an unfolding of time, you’re disrupting the unfolding of time in narrative. But because this is happening within a sentence and not at the end of a line, it also maintains the tension between the two modes. Putting something that disrupts the unfolding of time at the center of the tool that unfolds time. I think that makes me think of something you say about Edmond Jabès in Lavish Absence, which is one of my favorite books of yours. You say that it is Jabès’s insistence on the book on the one hand and on the fragment on the other that has focused your own contradictory impulses toward flow and toward fragment. This question of flow and fragment flows through your work at large but so does time is subject. When you were talking to Michael Palmer, maybe five years ago in an interview around the time Gap Gardening had come out, you said you were writing with one eye toward dying. He added that the other eye was very trained on the details of the world in the now, but leap ahead five years and The Nick of Time feels like it has both eyes trained on mortality where you describe in the poem Bits and Pieces, the quote, “Almost physical wanting of continuity” and the desire to “smooth” it “over.” In this book, one can no longer fool oneself into thinking that this is merely a formal poetics or an anesthetic. I think we recognize wanting our own stories to continue, the stories of our relationships to continue, the people we love to continue. It feels like this tension between the sentence, its promise of continuity, its unfolding of time, and the void you’ve smuggled into its heart is also being played out thematically with the mysteries of death and dying. Yet at the end of your intro to Jabès’ The Book of Margins, you write, “PS: It is not life that creates but death.” Talk to us a little bit about this.
RW: You have formulated all this very, very well. It’s almost hard to add to it. [laughter] I’m thinking of a Borges story, The Immortal, which is a real horror story of a society without death. There are all these creatures that are totally zombies because with no death, there is no urgency to do anything. I think it is a very good example of how death actually creates, then again, also language is really, in some ways, based on death because it abstracts from the lovely details of the world around us. A word is an abstraction. It kills the actual thing by making it a word, then creates something with that death-based word. Death is omnipresent. Of course, it is also because we know we all will die. As you get older, that sense gets stronger. If you have a husband who has a lot of health problems, then it becomes even stronger than normally because I do think of death a lot but I also act as if it didn’t exist. [laughs] I just act as if this would go on forever, even though I know that I’m 86, so it’s not too far off. But there is this great thing that death also causes us to do things and to make things. Basically, culture is a result of death in the last analysis.
DN: I was hoping maybe we could hear Escaping Analogy.
[Rosmarie Waldrop reads from her latest collection of poetry, The Nick of Time]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rosmarie Waldrop read from her latest collection of poetry, The Nick of Time. I’m very grateful for this poem in particular. I was preparing for this conversation while at a month-long residency in Wyoming. I’d go on these epic runs in the hills among the antelope and the deer, and among the skeletons of antelope and deer, and the disarticulated wings of birds and birds flying over my head while I’d be thinking about my own writing, and about the conversations I was anticipating for the show. But then I’d think about this poem and I’d be undone by it. I’d start crying. My crying wouldn’t just be about your desire to escape analogy with Keith for him to still recognize you as the person you’ve shaped your life with for 60, 65 years, but also about death and dying in my own life, and my own moving toward it and about death more generally speaking. When Ruby was talking about the title of your book, the two meanings of Nick of Time, one having done something just before it’s too late and the other being the way time cuts us, the way it nicks us, then he suggests a third less used form of nick, which is to steal, that time steals time from us and that poetry, in his notion, is a way to steal a little bit back by suspending it, by suspending time. But there’s a contradictory way. I think you’re also not only nicking time back from death but also perhaps creating space for death in your work. By death, I also mean silence in the not said. Richard Stamelman in his intro to Lavish Absence says, “Writing replaces life, fossilizes being, arrests time, unless, it remains focused on and makes a space within itself for death.” That’s what it feels like. When I hear this and much of your poetry, I feel like you’re arresting time against death and evoking the end of time, which is death. Another way on the level of the book that you do this is with how periodically, as we read, as we move through The Nick of Time, we come across a lament poem for a writer who you knew who has died. For example, lament for Edmond Jabès, lament for Barbara Guest. I was hoping maybe you could speak about the laments and the ways that you honored the people you’re lamenting, not only by writing about them but also sometimes writing under the influence of them when you write your lament.
RW: It’s not only under the influence but I use their words not in their original context but phrases they used. I alternate stances of what I say about them with “you say” or “you wrote,” then quote lines. In a way, I’m reading and writing their work as a homage, as a way of holding on to what they did in their life that was most important to them. This is another thing about aging. Your world shrinks. Your friends die. It gets narrower. There is this impulse to want to hold on. At the same time, the inevitability just reminds you that you’re on that same road.
DN: When you said earlier that the words through representation in a way kill the thing that they’re representing, in a way this is the reverse, these laments, it feels like in a way, these are the vehicles of life about people who have died.
RW: Yes by trying to hold on to their words and incorporating them.
DN: Could we hear the lament for Robert Creeley?
[Rosmarie Waldrop reads from her latest collection of poetry, The Nick of Time]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rosmarie Waldrop read from The Nick of Time. I wanted to bring into our conversation another formal element of your work. When you read Escaping Analogy, the first poem you read a couple minutes ago, people can’t see that the poem is modular with each paragraph surrounded by white space. Another way you invite the gap or the silence is through these gaps between paragraphs, not just the distress within the sentences but also the gaps between the paragraphs. You said that you’re drawn more to juxtaposition, collage, and contiguity rather than continuity. I wonder if this is connected to you, generally steering clear of metaphor and analogy. That the creation of metaphors and analogies is by nature a bridging over a gap between two different things—maybe hiding the gap or smoothing the flow as you say in Escaping Analogy. In Escaping Analogy, you say, “Analogies keep us from seeing what we see.” Another way we could read Escaping Analogy is perhaps that you want to foreground the nothingness between two things that are put next to each other, so we can truly see them, then it makes me wonder if having the nothingness around them helps us to see them. But talk to us about metaphor and analogy as something you, not entirely, but generally avoid, and how collage is one way to avoid it?
RW: This is another big, big question. [laughs] Actually, it again goes way back. In 1970, both Keith and I spent a year in Paris. We both had grants and had a year off. In that year, I was writing a lot. I was writing a lot about walking through the streets. The poems went very well. I was very excited. They were mainly about language and walking, but also about the relationship between two people. It was only gradually that I realized that what I was doing was pushing the metaphor out of the literal small metaphor into the structure of the poem. The whole poem was a metaphor between walking, thinking, thinking, writing and relation, but the text was very in a way quite linearly concerned with walking, and such. This happened to happen at the same time I met these French poets Claude Royet-Journoud and Anne-Marie Albiach. In fact, on the day we met them, Anne-Marie’s first book had been published. It was a very fraught day but also, Claude showed us his manuscript, which was not published yet. Right in the middle of that book on a page by itself was the sentence, “Shall we escape analogy.” No question mark. [laughs] “Shall we escape analogy.” This suddenly made me actually realize what I have been doing, saying yes, I’ve been doing something to get away from analogy toward a more contiguous relational way of writing. Of course, this again relates to the electromagnetic field, to all the things we’ve been talking about, how the field, the spatial sense of things next to each other has become more important than the organic form. The basic text that made all this very clear to me was one that I had used in my dissertation. It’s an article by Roman Jakobson called Two Types of Aphasic, in which he establishes that every speech act has two axes, a vertical axis, which he calls the axis of substitution. When we start a sentence, we make choices in a vertical axis. We want to say the man or do we want to say the guy, the boy, the fellow? Do we do this for every word, there’s an axis of selection? Then we put them together in the axis of combination. The axis of selection is obviously the axis of metaphor because you put one thing instead of another. It also has a very strong vertical dimension. It’s really a symbol metaphor. There’s always a connection between the material and the immaterial. Also, Olson called it “the suck of symbol,” the suck of symbol upwards finally to God so that the world becomes God’s book etc. But what happened with all the theory and with all the writing, say of Olson, Pound, that the axis of combination has become much more important, whereas with organic form, the metaphor was the center of the poem. But now, if you look at poems, there’s very much a stress on the horizontal, on the combination of the words. Of course, the arch priestess of this is Gertrude Stein. Everything is the same except composition. Composition is the most important thing. Now, the white space is also something that came to me through French friends, both Jabès, Claude, and Anne-Marie because their poems use an enormous amount of white space between words or sections or stanzas. In fact, when Claude’s first book was published, his first review was titled, “So much white! so much white!” [laughter]
DN: That’s great.
RW: But despite, the space between gives an enormous weight to the words, more weight than they would have if they were closer together because that silence really, again, it slows us down, it makes a pause, then enfolds the words, there’s more importance than they would have otherwise. In translating Jabès, I always had to fight the publisher to give the book as much white space as the French book has. I didn’t always get as much but I got some. At some point, Thomas Allen of Chicago Press called me up and said, “Why this white space? It makes no difference to the sense.” I said, “Well, it makes a difference to the rhythm and thereby does make a difference to the sense.” I don’t think he was quite convinced but he gave me a little more white space than he had planned to. [laughter]
DN: It sounds like white space is much more expensive to get in America than in France.
RW: It is, definitely.
DN: Now that we’re talking about collage, I wanted to talk a little bit about the process with you. In past interviews, you’ve talked about how sometimes, when you were stuck, you’d use techniques from Dadaists to break loose again, sometimes, you’d also use grammatical structures of another text as a constraint and you’ve also used Oulipian constraints, like N+7 when writing the book Shorter American Memory and you’ve taught procedural methods like these in classes. But you’ve also said something really interesting that I’d love to explore further, and that’s your use of source texts as a constraint, that you’re using source material not just for content but “itself as a constraint the way most poets might use metrical schemes” is one way you’ve put it before. You have quite a few books where somebody else’s book is a generative source and a constraint, so we have Shorter American Memory, which collages documents from Henry Beston’s American Memory, we have A Key into the Language of America, engaging with a 16th Century preacher’s book on Native American languages and what is now Rhode Island, you have a book that uses work by Wittgenstein, and here in The Nick of Time, not only did you read a lot about time and use the vocabulary of physics and the philosophy of language in the book from a variety of books that you read about time, and not only do you use ideas, styles, or quotes from the people whose passing you are lamenting in the lament poems, and not only do you lift phrases in the rehearsing the symptoms sequence and use them without attribution from everyone, from Kafka to Blanco to Lispector to Rebecca Solnit, but you also again engage with source text and not just for research but where the language of the source text is part of your text. One of the places I’m thinking of in your new book is the case of the Mandarin language Primer. I was hoping maybe you could talk about this interest in source texts as a way to create your own text through theirs in a general sense, and then maybe you could dial it in and talk to us about the source text that you used in The Nick of Time.
RW: Let me go back a lot again. The way I came to collage first was very early in my trying to write. All my very early poems were about my mother and my difficult relationship with her. At a certain point, I decided this was a dead end and I needed to get out of myself and my obsessions. I decided to make objective poems. I would make them by, say, taking a book and taking three words on it from every page and trying to make a structure. This actually got very interesting for me and I liked it and I wrote a number of them and I liked them well enough, but I put them away. A while later, I looked at them and found they were still about my mother, but there was also something else going on. They were getting more interesting than they had been when I was only pouring out my obsessions. That was an important moment for me. I realized two things: one is that your obsessions get into your work no matter what you do, so you don’t have to worry about content and can concentrate on form. The other was that form is totally generative. I think this is actually why rhyme and meter have lasted that long because the form generates the context. It really made me stick with collage because it was an obvious thing that these words that I hadn’t put together but somebody else had. If I put them together with something, I was thinking something was happening. There were sparks flying suddenly over the gap between the other words and my words. This became very important to me. The other thing that became important is let other voices come into my text, open it up. Some of it, I make obvious by using the language of physics. It’s obvious that I’m not a physicist, I don’t even understand a lot of what I try to read about it. Just another dimension comes in through the collage. It could also come through acknowledged quotations, but somehow that doesn’t quite work for me, that makes it too direct so I prefer to just work on them. Also, I often use very small segments and put them into a sentence of my own. That’s really a kind of merging that doesn’t lend itself to quotation marks all the time. But there is always a built-in gap even, so I try to say, put somebody else’s word into a sentence that the rest of it is made up by me, there is a gap involved. The gap causes sparks to fly, connection, relation makes for things happening. The edges give off sparks for me.
DN: Let me ask you a question about the choice of the Mandarin Primer and The Nick of Time, because when I think of your choice of transforming and engaging with the source text and Shorter American Memory, and A Key into the Language of America, in engaging with those texts, it feels like you’re commenting on and critiquing or exploring power in relation to language, and in some ways, disrupting the stories that America is telling itself. I also feel like the way you’re disrupting, just more generally, the tools of narrative, you’re disrupting certain power structures in disrupting the sentence. What are the reasons behind choosing the Mandarin Primer and did they also include, or perhaps not include, questions of power with relation to language?
RW: Actually, the Mandarin, that was totally accidental. I came across this primer and just looking at some of the examples and how strange the phrasing was, I was just delighted to read it and then thought I would play with it. It was mostly playful. The other thing that I strongly connect with China is tea, I’m a great tea drinker, so that subject matter got in and then just in playing with it, I began to think a little bit of the tensions between East and West, the history of China, how the West basically tried to drug all of China with the opium trade. At the same time, how women were treated getting their feet bound so that they couldn’t really move, and all this, yes, it always boils down to power structures and how they work out both in language and in real life.
DN: Could we hear a couple of the short pieces from the Primer?
[Rosmarie Waldrop reads from The Nick of Time]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rosmarie Waldrop read from The Nick of Time. I want to ask you about identity, voice, autobiography, and the pronoun “I” with regards to your work, another big question. Edmond Jabès said “‘Otherness’ is the condition of individuation… If we say ‘I’ we already say difference.” You say in this collection in a poem called Loving Words, “I is not my name, is anybody’s, promiscuously. Language, which is all difference, proves that you and I are not one. Are, though every sentence hopes for love, each wrapped in our own quilt and alone.” Keeping both your and Jabès’s mirroring words in mind, I wonder if you’re bringing the distress into the middle of the sentence, a trojan horse of destruction inside the engine of narrative, is also a possibly a way to bring distress into a cohesive delimited notion of self. When talking about your novel, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter, which is a fictionalized version of your childhood in Nazi Germany, you say, “The drive to know our own story moves us to see through it and touch the violence inherent in the mechanism itself.” Marjorie Perloff, in looking at the two places where you most actively engage with that era of your life, the novel, and then also the collection Split Infinites, she says, “If the many allusions in Waldrop’s writings are to be believed, her parents and their friends were active Nazis, and thus what the poet perceived to be her dark past made it imperative for her to find a poetic form that would be ‘a way of getting out of myself.’” You’ve talked about how if the war had gone on another four months, you would have been the age of conscription into the female version of Hitler’s youth, that you learned the Nazi salute with the alphabet. In your poem Memory Tree, the lines: “My first schoolday, September 1941, a cool day. Time did not Pass, but was conducted to the brain. I was taught. The Nazi Salute, the flute”, I’m curious to hear about this notion that the drive to know our own story moves us to see through it and touch the violence inherent to the mechanism itself, if perhaps you see the story of self as something, like Perloff suggests, to escape, or perhaps distress. Or as Roland Barthes said in one citation that you gave of him, “Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. The negative where all identity is lost.” Talk to us about “I” and identity in this realm.
RW: I first want to just pick up on the violence of inherent in the mechanism of telling, of story, of writing. I’m really thinking of that as the incredible abstraction and condensation that process involves. It’s, again, killing the life, really. In The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter, the title comes from a local legend which was that Pippin’s daughter dropped the handkerchief from the castle on the mountain and a shepherd found it. The shepherd’s name was Kitz, so my hometown was named Kitzingen. This was interesting to me because the legend says nothing else about the daughter, a whole life reduced to one gesture, of dropping a handkerchief. Then she doesn’t even get her name on the town, but the man who finds it. [laughs] There is, again, this basis of writing, of narration, of abstraction that we constantly are engaged in. But the self is a complicated matter. In fact, I have many poems that play with alternative lives, alternative selves. I think we all have that to some extent, of course. It has been studied to its extreme in schizophrenics. But it’s interesting that I did want to get out of myself. On the surface, it was really getting away from my mother. But there is probably something to what Marjorie says that I felt a need to get away from this Nazi past that I was part of without knowing it. In fact, this is something that has obsessed me and I’ve been trying to write something about it. There are some phrases I remember from early childhood which surprises me that I remember them. But even so at the time, I did not understand them. For instance, when I was about three, we moved into a new apartment. When we were looking at the proprietor, there was one room that was very dark, it had a wine red wallpaper. I was hesitant to go into that room. I remember a male voice saying, “The kid’s got instinct, doesn’t want to go into the Jew place.”
DN: Oh, wow.
RW: This phrase has stuck in my head for over 50 years. I don’t remember who said it. It could have been my father, it could have been the proprietor, but I had that phrase. Obviously, Jews had been expelled and their property was up for sale very cheaply and so we were moving into a house that had been the property of Jews. This became a big problem when I was a teenager and began to realize what had happened. Obviously, I’m still not quite done with it because I’m trying to write about it but I haven’t been able to. It’s not been working. This being a witness without being a witness, being present without being a witness, I think Marjorie put her finger on something that was a necessity for me. But then there’s also the positive side of getting out of yourself and that is we tend to get stuck in our very narrow selves and trying to open out to other voices is very important, the whole racism bit of being stuck in one ideology and not seeing other ways of looking at things. I think this was underlying my cultivation of collage and bringing other voices into the thing, into my writing. But it also, in the early stages, actually worried me. I was wondering if my writing really had anything to do with me. It also seemed that every text seemed so different from the next one that I had no self, that there was nothing in the center, which is probably true, [1:16:26] mostly empty space with things relating and circulating it. I was worried that there was no center to my riding, that it was all just that the collage was total. But when I was asked to put together a short selected poems, one of the great things that I realized was in spite of all these differences and all seemed so separate to me, there was a distinct voice with all the poems no matter where the sources were and where they came from. That was a great relief that there was something that was me writing even with the other voices.
DN: Yeah. As a reader, it seems magical with all the emphasis on gaps and discontinuity and engaging with the words of others that I think there is this great continuity across your work.
RW: Yeah. It was that putting together a selective that made me aware of that. I was very grateful.
DN: Yeah. Your life story, beyond the remarkable sweep of history it now contains, from protesting a lecture by Heidegger in Germany in the 1950s before you left, to meeting George Oppen late in his life, your life is also tempting to create analogies and the narrative connections between it and your poetry, like I’m tempted to want to create analogies and narrative connections, perhaps in the spirit of Marjorie Perloff, the discontinuities in your childhood that your town was bombed in 1943 and you were shifted from village to village for two years, living with family members or acquaintances. It’s easy to try to connect this to your affinity to the word between and your attraction to disjunction or that when the war was over, your parents are biking from town to town bartering items for food, and I’m guessing you’re maybe 10 or 11 the year that school is suspended for an entire year and you join a traveling theater group. In the afternoons, you’re playing a dwarf in Snow White and in the evenings, you’re playing the son of a Russian nobleman and how this might connect you to a different sense of selfhood and identity. But instead of doing this, making these connections or perhaps forcing these connections, I don’t know, I want to talk about another link between your life and your work that people can’t seem to help themselves from drawing a connection and which you push back against, and that is your connection with the Egyptian-Jewish writer, Edmond Jabès, and many have wanted to make a connection between you as a German non-Jew translating the Jewish, Jabès, as the main reason you were translating him was because he was Jewish and you’ve pushed back in print that no, there are a lot of reasons why you’re translating Jabès and not Elie Wiesel, for instance, or any number of other writers whose sensibilities, animating questions or poetics are not ones you’re interested in. I was hoping maybe we could talk about your enduring attraction to Jabès’ work to the point where you’re both writing about each other. I love the moment that he’s writing about you in one of the 14 books you’ve translated of his, he’s writing about you in The Book of Margins, which of course I’m reading in your translation. It’s a whole nother level of questions of self and identity and language, and again, bringing in the words of others but also carrying the words of others across for us into English. Could you speak to another impossible question for you to speak to some of the attractions of Jabès for you?
RW: There may well have been a subliminal sense of connecting with Jewishness because it was this big horror in my life. But as I said, there were many other writers that I did not feel at all moved to translate. It was definitely the form of the book. Actually, he first wrote little poems, partly in the wake of surrealism, and Keith, my husband, translated a number of them. I liked them but I felt no urge to go into that. It was The Book of Questions, which of course engages with the Holocaust. It did tap into this but it was also its form which is that the story is never told, it is just a subtext—a pretext as he says—and you get little fragments of a narration but you get mostly commentary on these fragments. You get rabbis commenting, you get little images, and then layer and layer of interpretation. This was so fascinating that I was overwhelmed by the book. Obviously, one cannot separate out the strands so that was both the subject matter of the Holocaust and this incredibly inventive form, which seemed probably stranger to a Westerner than to say, the Egyptians or they see Arabic tradition of the divan, which is very much behind Jabès’s form, which is also in Europe, people, usually rabbis or men meeting around a lamp or around tea and talking. That of course is what Jabès’s book does. Except that they can also get a little more and more abstract and in the end, he dispenses with the story underlying and only has the aphorisms separated by quite a bit of white space.
DN: It was interesting when you were describing that partial memory you have about the red room, and you said how the Holocaust wasn’t something that you directly experienced but it seems like such a defining aspect of the formation of your poetics and yourself in some regards. It feels like that’s true for Jabès, too, in the sense that he was not a European-Jew and he was affected by the Holocaust, obviously, as a Jew, but also because he was expelled from Egypt in the 50s and so was living in exile in France. In a way, again, instead of escaping analogy, I want to make this analogy between your work, the great formative thing in both of your lives is also something that is not something that either of you experienced directly. But I love the way, in Lavish Absence and other places, writing about Jabès becomes an act of writing about yourself. You quote Dominique Grandmont who said, “We always search for the meaning of our own life in the text we translate. And sometimes we ‘find the other inside ourselves.’” But I think we see this mirroring throughout when you say about yourself, “My mother tongue is a foreign language,” and about Jabès is the poet of the non-place, I feel something vibrating between the two of you when I read those things together. Or in response to Adorno who said,“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and Jabès said, “After Auschwitz we must write poetry, but with wounded words.” I think of all the ways we’ve discussed your attempts to distress the sentence, which does feel like a way to wound the sentence. Which loops me back to Jabès again with quotes like, “Subversion is the very movement of writing: the very movement of death. The written page is no mirror. To write means to confront an unknown face.” Also, the uncanniness that I’m really reading your words right now, I’m not reading his words. I also love the way you describe your relationship over time, how there was a period you felt like you had to defend your own writing against his ideas before you ultimately let them in, and how he writes about you in The Book of Margins as you write about him in Lavish Absence, and then even the really I think funny essay, delightfully transgressive essay you write about him and the devil, and about how translation is also an act of destruction motivated by envy, which I thought was really great. But there is one way that, at least, on the surface, your approaches seem like polar opposites, and that is around metaphor. You’ve also written about this because metaphor is his primary tool. He sees both the Jew and God as metaphors, he sees Judaism as a collective experience of individuation, and thus a metaphor for the human condition. Much of his writing is this really strange accretion of metaphor on top of metaphor. But you’ve argued that even here where the tools are opposite, your tools and his tools are opposite, that perhaps you and Jabès are reaching toward the same subversion with opposite methods. I was wondering if you could maybe just speak to, because if we think about your moving away from metaphor and towards collage and then looking at his immersion and metaphor, you could say, at least on the surface, that it was a strange pairing.
RW: True. But actually, he is overusing metaphor to the point where he empties it out. There are different ways to get away from the metaphor like he just exhausts it, he keeps one on the other, until finally everything is like everything else and then when everything is like everything else, nothing is like nothing. Actually, I don’t think he really was aware of that, he was aware of the metaphor and he wanted the metaphor, but really if you look at it from the outside, I think he’s also subverting it.
DN: When you were talking earlier about the verticality of metaphor, you said something like the sucking motion of–
RW: Oh, that Olson phrase, the suck of symbol upwards.
DN: The suck of symbol up to god, to a god who for him is a metaphor and not something he actually believed in.
RW: Right. I asked him about that and that’s what he said verbatim, he said, it’s a metaphor for everything that calls us into question, there’s silence, nothingness, the void.
DN: Just very briefly before we return in The Nick of Time, I just wanted to read a couple lines from him that you pointed out in your essay collection Dissonance as an example of him eroding the linking function of metaphor. You preface it by saying if you’re not paying attention, it may seem like it’s an inept use of metaphor but rather, it’s this technique to erode metaphor through metaphor. Childhood is a piece of ground bathed in water, with little paper boats floating on it. Sometimes, the boats turn into scorpions. Then life dies, poisoned, from one moment to the next. The poison is in each corolla, as the earth is in the sun. At night, the earth is left to itself, but, happily, people are asleep. In their sleep, they are invulnerable. The poison is the dream.” I just love that. To return to your book, even though we just again just heard your words, can we hear the poem Coupling?
RW: Yes. That gets at the identity.
[Rosmarie Waldrop reads a poem called Coupling]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rosmarie Waldrop read from The Nick of Time. When we think of this meditation on Coupling and the many selves of the so-called individual, and the ways you use source texts of another to generate your own texts, and the way you told Michael Palmer that reading and writing have become part of a single process for you, that you need to be reading or listening to the other in order to find the words to begin something, and then the ways your decades-long collaboration with Jabès is one of both self-discovery and one of inviting the other into the self, I wanted to spend a moment with the notion of circularity and whether circularity is something that compels you. Because even the notion that creativity is generated by death or comes from death not from life, it feels cyclical to me. In your collection, Blindsight, you have the lines: “What is memory? A palace? The belly of the mind? Of absence a dream? The baby in the picture I don’t remember, but I remember my doll.” That, circling back to yourself as a baby that you don’t recognize but you do recognize the doll makes me think of the ways you engage with Keith’s deteriorating memory in the latest book, too, the way the book looks at the deterioration of both time and self in old age but also looks at the same time at language acquisition in early childhood.
RW: It’s true that a review of a book on the child’s language acquisition got into the book and it is at the time when I watched the language disappearing from my husband’s use of it. It’s an interesting subject in itself, the acquisition of language, but it must have made it so relevant to me because I was watching the opposite. The way the baby really is a kind of probability calculus and then how the words go away. I’m not sure I can really say anything about it, it’s there but I can’t articulate.
DN: I wanted to ask you about a different notion of “eye” in relation to your work, and that is the organ of perception that is the “eye”. Because I’ve noticed that the “eye” seems to occur more than almost anything else, the organ of perception, and I feel like I could spend an hour reciting the “eye” references in your work, but I’m going to just recite a brief sampling but literally like I was noting how often the “eye” appears. The first line in Gap Gardening, “To see darkness the eye withdraws from light in light.” In your book Blindsight, “The eye, most dangerous of lenses.” Some others include, “To explore the nature of rain I opened the door because inside the workings of language clear vision is impossible.” “Was I frightened by what I saw or by my own eyes?” And “With the mind’s eye. We see against the light. The way we see the dead.” And one of my favorites, “And we must close our eyes to conceive of heaven. The inside of the lid is fertile in images unprovoked by experience, or perhaps its pressure on the eyeball equals prayer.” These are all quotes from before your latest book but The Nick of Time continues this “eye” tradition and fascination. Here are a couple examples: “How can we see time as it is when we treat it like a thing.” And here’s one that I might put forth as a Rosmarie Waldropian poetics: “If I let the night invade my eyes, all the way to the horizon? As if it had a body? Might I then see the cause of my not seeing?” Finally, one that unites the I of identity and the eye of perception, Children born blind say I only after they’ve learned to play with a doll.” So Rosmarie, why the eye?
RW: You have very big questions. [laughter] Vision is our most important sense and it’s the one I’m most comfortable with, much more comfortable than with hearing. Even so, I love music. For instance, I really am convinced I think on paper. I read about Rimbaud going for a walk and coming back home and having finished the poem in his head and writing it down. I could never do that. Nothing happens until I put it on paper and start seeing the words. For me, I’m also much more comfortable with email interviews than I am with one that goes by the ear. The eye is just the most important sense. But also, there is a little, I can’t quote it by memory but Louis Zukofsky plays on the sound equivalence between the I as the person and the eyes. That struck me as enormously true, that the “I” really sits in the eyes. I was very excited when I came across that intercost, he said, “Yes, this is right.” But that also that I take it to the writing that the writing becomes almost like seeing for me, that I see with words. It’s an exaggeration but it gets up at what goes on in my process. The words need to be outside myself visible on paper before I do anything.
DN: The quote of allowing the night to invade your eyes as if it had a body made me wonder about the body in your work. It is a subject in this book for sure, but you also have said things like, “Poetry, sound and meaning—are equally important,” reminding us that words have bodies, that image is, in part, part of the physical world. You’ve talked about how breath stands for the process of the poem coming into being. When you were talking to Michael Palmer, you mentioned how “Goethe claims that style tends to become abstract with age, that the old Titian no longer painted velvet, but the idea of velvet.” Palmer brought this very much back to the body. He said, “We are also witnessing the aging of both the hand and the eyesight, and the revised economy, if that is the word, mandated by such changes. And the acknowledgement of the unrepresentable. And the gradual metamorphosis of memory.” I guess it made me wonder about the body in general but also its revised economy and if its revised economy, as Palmer puts it, has changed your relationship to either language or process.
RW: It has changed the process to becoming even more fragmented than before, partly because there seems to be so much less time, which is simply because everything takes longer to do. There’s less time and so it’s even more fragmented and it’s even harder to get things to have a coherence which they do need, much as I love fragments. But to language itself, I’m not sure because there is this constant flow of words that goes through our heads and that hasn’t really changed I think, except that the physical body intrudes more, one has to think more about the body than one does when he’s young, then the body is taken for granted, you don’t have to worry about it. But as it breaks down, it obtrudes.
DN: Let’s finish with a final poem. I was thinking maybe we could end with Loving Words.
[Rosmarie Waldrop reads a poem called Loving Words]
DN: Thank you so much, Rosmarie, for spending these two hours with me today.
RW: Thank you for having made this possible and having formulated so well so many complicated questions. [laughter]
DN: It was my pleasure, really.
RW: I loved this interview. You raised so many questions and I’m really thankful for what you did.
DN: Yeah. I’m very thankful for your work, too. I can’t tell you how much pleasure it’s been immersing myself in it. We’ve been talking today to Rosmarie Waldrop about her latest book from New Directions, The Nick of Time. 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, Rosmarie reads Adam, or the Birth of Anxiety from Edmond Jabès’s The Book of Shares. This joins bonus audio from Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, Arthur Sze, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Ted Chiang, Layli Long Soldier, Natalie Diaz, Richard Powers, N. K. Jemisin, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. 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 who help make this show run, 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.