An Interview with Matt Hart
Matt Hart is the author of the poetry collections Whoís Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006) and Wolf Face (H_NGM_N BKS, 2010), as well as several chapbooks, including The Hours (Cinematheque Press, 2010) and Late Makeup Years and Decline (1979-1983) (Hell Yes! Press, 2010), which he wrote in collaboration with Dobby Gibson. A third full-length collection, Light-Headed, will be published by BlazeVOX in spring 2011. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
In August 2010, Bookslut's Elizabeth Hildreth interviewed Matt Hart over e-mail about his new poetry collection Wolf Face. They discuss, among other things, ďrevelation,Ē the noise of being, poetry readings as rock shows, weird joy and holy shit singing, 100% parenthetical everything, how to have faith when youíre totally off the beaten path of righteousness, controlled sloppiness, and how a simile is like a phone booth in Cincinnati or anywhere (or nowhere as the case may be).
Hi Matt. I said in a previous interview with Nate Pritts: "Iím excited for Matt Hartís new book Wolf Face. Itíll be great to see another collection after Whoís Who Vivid. That debut was super - - and supercharged in terms of the pace. Iíll be interested to compare its velocity to Wolf Face."
So now I have seen Wolf Face. And it was great. Congratulations! In terms of its pacing, my conclusion is: Wolf Face = Accelerated. Thematically, I found it really similar to Vivid, though. In fact, itís interesting how its pacing contrasts with the overarching theme of the book, which, to me at least, is everyday domestication, however (to use your word) revelated. You explain the definition of ďrevelatedĒ in your poem ďHistory LessonĒ:
Back before REVELATED (a word I think I made up) meaning: 1) intense ††† spontaneous ††and illuminated revelry 2) a state of elated revelation 3) GALVANIZATION 4) revolution with a smile
Or maybe you donít agree with that. Iíll let you speak for yourself.
First, shouldnít we mention to anyone reading this who doesnít know, that you and I have known each other and been friends for twenty years, so if theyíre looking for super-charged objectivity or poetry cross-fire or something, maybe they should read a more awkward conversation between two strangers interested in getting at the truthÖ?
As for the here and now (much wrangling and shifting and revision in the background), how about this: I think I agree somewhat that Wolf Face and Vivid are thematically similar -- I mean, for one thing both books contain a lot of me talking -- no speakers. I think, too, that both books contain healthy doses of skepticism and anxiety (some would Iím sure say neurosis) with regard to being and meaning in this world. In WWV I start out screaming and inventing ďa monster,Ē and in Wolf Face ďitís dawn and the low babyís crying.Ē So in that sense, both books are trying hard to see and live and work through the noise of being, and I think both books pose questions about our responsibilities to ourselves and others, and even to the things we makeÖ
I actually think this is sort of tough for me to articulate, because Iíve been so focused on articulating the differences between the two books. I mean, Vivid is all over the frigginí place, surreal, art-centric, a trying-anything-just-because first book. If itís about anything (as opposed to being a book of individual poems that go from p. 1 to p. 88), itís about the instability of the self, and both the anxiety and excitement that go along with that. Donít get me wrong, Iím proud of Whoís Who Vivid, but I think Wolf Face is certainly more located, grounded, and direct -- less weird for its own sake, and more weird because life is actually really weird. Furthermore, I feel like Wolf Face is more cohesive as a BOOK, not just poems collected. I mean, it even has a setting, right here in Cincinnati in this house where I live, where I write. My wife, my daughter, my friends are everywhere present... the music is playing upstairs, even now. In other words, Wolf Face is a book about stability by almost any measure -- a stability that if oneís lucky comes from oneís surroundings, the company one keeps, the choices one makes. And yet, in a larger sense the bookís about the slipperiness of those appearances of stability, the ways in which the surfaces and depths of things, not only often donít match up, but potentially contradict each other.
This inability to just believe totally that all the good things are really good things -- and that theyíll last, that weíll live -- is a big part what drives the new book. ďAside from the wolf, things go well,Ē wrote Richard Hugo. Everybody has a wolf. Mine is constantly (nearly) running me down, causing me to look over my shoulder. Sometimes I run into trees, and it hits me. Paranoia. Anxiety. ďLife is great, but you better watch out.Ē
So yes, these poems are accelerated -- thatís true. Iím in a big damn hurry to stay alive. I think after my daughter Agnes came along things sped up incredibly. Everything was immediately more complicated and serious, but also more exuberant and ridiculous and uncertain -- including the poems. Nothing in this book is what it appears to be, and everything is exactly what it says. The poems demonstrate a particular way of paying attention, but theyíre also often ABOUT real things (both concrete and abstract) that I hope other people -- for instance, people like you who Iíve known for all these years -- can connect with and relate to on multiple levels from a variety of angles with strangeness and weird joy and holy shit singing.
Speaking of ďholy shit singing,Ē I played a video of you reading poetry for my daughter this morning. About a minute and a half in, she said, very quietly, "Stop," and I laughed, ďDid you just say stop?Ē Then I asked her, ďWhat do you think this man is doing?Ē Total silence. ďDo you think this man is singing?Ē And she laughed nervously, ďUhÖ yes?Ē When it was over, I asked her if she wanted to listen to it again, and she pulled the covers over her head and said, ďIím pretending to be sleeping now.Ē I think you exhausted her with your aural exuberance. Later I tried again and she nodded, ďI like it. But I wish you would turn it down a little.Ē Have you ever gotten the sense at a reading that people didnít know quite how to classify what they were hearing/seeing or wished you would ďturn it downĒ? Also, do you ever revise poems based on problems you notice while youíre doing readings?
Wow, thatís so funny. My daughter saw me read recently, too, and friends of mine sitting with her said she became visibly agitated -- almost, it seemed, worried about me, perhaps because I was so wound up. Afterward she said, ďThat was great, daddy, but it was really loud.Ē So yeah, the small children are a little weirded out by the way I read. As you know I played in punk rock bands for a long time, and I definitely channel some of that same energy and movement into my readings. I also come from a long line of preachers and drunks, and when I was a kid I remember attending church services where the sermons were more like fire breathing than arguments or lessons on how to live and what to do. It was like these guys would take a deep breath and then the roof was on fire. The thing is I couldnít have cared less what they were saying, but how they were saying it was electrifying. We donít need no water.
So with all that as a backdrop, I definitely think of my readings as performances. Iíd love for people to feel afterward more like theyíve been to a rock show than to some academic literary event. If someone just wants to read the poems, then hopefully theyíll get the book, but I hope that my readings of the work present another way into it -- one thatís full-throttle expressive and turned up to eleven -- or down into the gravel. Not everything I read needs speed and volume. Mostly, itís all about singing. I can never get very far away from singing -- though lately Iíve been trying to do some poems -- when they call for it -- just speaking or dreaming. Even punk rock shows ebb and flow -- there are breaks, and break downs, and places of rest -- the dynamics range from rasp and whisper to distorted over-reaching to exhortative screaming, anthemic, taking flight. The truth is Iím always terrified before I read, so I do what I can to lose myself, which maybe looks like Iím throwing myself against the wall of the floor or the ceiling of my voice. But itís just me standing up in front of an audience in the way Iím most comfortable doing that, and Iíd say generally people over the ages of 3 or 4 seem to get a charge out of it. Of course, some people are annoyed by it, and thatís okay too -- though it bums me out, because, you know, Iím not trying to ruin the poems. Iím trying to read them in a way that makes sense to me in front of an audience. Itís probably not for everybody. But what is?
As for the last part of your question, I ALWAYS revise as Iím reading. Things will pop into my head that I have to try right then and there. Iíve cut entire stanzas at readings. Iíve read poems backwards. Iíve changed tenses and point of view. Iíd say nine out of ten times it winds up being something I actually go back and change on the page. Maybe it goes without saying that readings are really visceral experiences, where I get to engage with the poems and the audience both mentally and physically, so it allows me to see and hear the poems differently than I do when Iím sitting -- and even reading them out loud -- at my desk.
Itís funny, in my interview with Matthew Lippman, he said his highest aspiration was for his poems to be like TV. And now youíre saying you want your poetry readings to feel more like rock shows. It seems like so many people agree that poetry should be or do something different. But then it usually isnít/doesnít. Sometimes I go to poetry readings and find myself thinking afterwards, ďNo wonder everybody hates poets.Ē Given your many years of writing song lyrics for punk/art rock bands, how would explain the difference between lyrics and verse in poetry?
Hey, Iíll answer the last part of this question, but first I want to clarify something. I donít want my poems to be like TV or rock shows or anything other than poems, BUT I do try in my readings to present my poems in a way that uses the context as an excuse to blow the poem into the next life or to smithereens or a whisper in hopes that someone might then want to have the VERY DIFFERENT experience of reading the poem on the page. Reading a poem in a book (silently to oneself or aloud) is different -- should be different -- than hearing the author read it aloud. They are different contexts. One pays attention to different things. The words function differently. Furthermore, one has opportunities for making meaning at a reading that one doesnít have in books, and vice versa. Itís not about being entertaining either; itís about being fucking alive and giving a shit about actually communicating something to an audience. Itís about wanting to have an experience and provide one.
Which is exactly the same way I felt playing in bands, with regard to the live show vs. the record.
As for the differences between lyrics and poetry, they are three:
3) Lyrics often need music to be anything worth reading; poetry is the lyrics and the music in the words alone.
Someone might disagree with me on this, but they would be wrongÖ
Let me say also that questions about the essential nature of things -- whether or not some given work of art is lyrics or a poem or a lyric poem or a rhinoceros -- are less important to me than questions of value, e.g. given that you tell me such and so is a poem (or whatever), why does it matter (as a poem or whatever)? I mean, after Duchamp art and idea (art and theory) collapsed into one another so thoroughly that anything can be art, so the only real question is (see above). (Iím trying hard not to be redundant.) A great essay, which in part addresses this topic, is Timothy Binkleyís essay ďPiece: Contra AestheticsĒ which I promise has nothing to do with Oliver North or John Poindexter, or Casper the Friendly Ghost. I also think Arthur C. Dantoís essay, ďApproaching the End of ArtĒ which is included in his book The State of the Art is also more than relevant here.
The long and the short: song lyrics and poems arenít necessarily (essentially) different at all. In fact, I can imagine a situation where you would have a set of lyrics and a poem that are fundamentally different from one another, but which are made up of exactly the same words in exactly the same order. Their differences would be a matter of use (context, intention, function). A poem and a set of lyrics are used in different ways/to do different things, and as a result we attend to them (pay attention to them) differently.
I like that explanation, especially the difference hinging on context and function. One thing Iíve noticed about your poems: almost all of them tie the personal to the universal. I admire that about them. I read your poems and feel included. I feel like you're thinking about yourself but also all of us and the things we do and think and the different ways in which we fit together (or donít).
For instance, the poem ďMart Hart Running with Daisy, His DogĒ starts out
Running with his dog, Matt Hart sucks in
big hunks of frosted air and then forces them back out
like barely visible tufts of pink cotton candy,
It canít really any more personal than including your first and last name in the title and first line of a poem. But this poem isnít just ďMy name is Matt Hart and today I went running and it was cold outside.Ē It opens up and up, and by the end, the narrator is posing these huge questions: ďHow does a person let go of the life he built? What will letting go feel like? What will 'after I vanish from the earth' look like?" Hereís the ending:
Itís December and Matt Hart just had another birthday.
36, he thinks, and divides it by three, and doubles it,
and starts running again taking a deep breath;
he wonders, as he often does, about the finish line,
the one which is his own yard, his front door, but also
the one heís seen in his mind, never for long and never
for real, but that one, which, when it occurs to him, stops him
in his tracksuit. Sometimes, he thinks Daisy sees it too.
But unlike him, she runs for it as hard as she can,
There it is there it is there it is, letís go!
But he canít ďletís go,Ē canít get over all
the things he doesnít know: How will it feel
to vanish? Will Daisy get a bone?
Will anybody be waiting there to greet them?
Itís like you're inside of a monkey and then looking out of the eyes of a flying bird. Is dual scope something thatís important to you when you're writing? (I almost wrote ďdesigning,Ē and maybe thatís closer to what I mean). Also, do you just naturally have this kind of narrow/wide vision? Or do you ever go in after the fact and insert what I consider "larger meaning" as part of the revision process? As an aside, not judging if you do. I find myself doing this. That's why I'm asking.
Iím so glad to hear you say you feel included in my poems, because thatís definitely something Iím always thinking about. I want to be a good artist and somehow (if only minimally) an accessible one at the same time -- mostly I fail at this. But I think too often artists (including myself) buy into the idea that if people (not just poets) can actually understand something theyíre saying then they must be making bad art. I hope thatís not true. I believe itís not true.
Along these same lines, Robert Motherwell wrote somewhere that ďParadoxically, one always arrives at the universal via the personal,Ē and I think Iíve tried to make that a mantra of mine. Itís the idea that concrete particulars actually give rise to (when one reflects on them) all the big ideas that swirl around human existence. To figure out the larger meaning and significance of life, we should look at the actual circumstances, scenarios, and configurations we live in -- what we do and what we say -- then think about where they point us. Perhaps another way to put this is the William Carlos Williams put it: No ideas, but in things. Philosophical conundrums -- whether theyíre about metaphysical essentials or ďDeatheryĒ (thank you Gregory Corso), or language itself -- interest and occupy us (when they interest and occupy us), because they hit us like bricks in the day-to-day, familiar, ordinary, to and fro hullaballoo of living and/or when we think critically (descriptively, analytically, interpretively) about the ways we ACTUALLY live and what it all might mean. The ideas donít generate particulars, but particulars generate ideas when we allow ourselves the pleasure/if we have the luxury (and of course a lot of people donít)Ö
So in my poems I think often I start by observing -- not a spear of summer grass, though that would really be fun to do -- something thatís actually in front of me, or I describe as closely as possible some experience Iíve had, or Iím having, and see whatís there. What does it point to in the stratosphere? Where does it lead me in relation to what it means to be human? How does it at least seem to resemble the experiences and lives of others?
I should definitely mention here that I am by no means some big-shot deep thinker (as Iím sure this interview makes clear). I never have a clue what Iím writing about in terms of the big picture until I write about something close, something tangible and immediate. Size actual human, right in front of my nose. Writing poems is for me a way of getting at exactly whatís on my mind (and hopefully the minds of other people) that I have no clue about. How that happens -- if it happens -- depends on the individual poem, but maybe it makes sense to say: as Iím writing, Iím always trying as much as possible to be on the lookout for where the poem wants to go out beyond ME. With that in mind, ďMatt Hart Running with Daisy His DogĒ is funny in the sense that even though my own nameís in the title and it describes a personal experience, itís about the big idea of ENDING someday than it is about me and Daisy full-throttle and ridiculous in December.
I like so much of your thinking is transparent in your poems. Your poems are generous that way. Weíre allowed to watch you feel around for meaning and construct ideas that fall down. We watch you give up at points and get back up and try to make something else or run in another direction. Even the cover of your book gives us a window through which we can see how you put your thoughts together. There's a poem pictured, typewritten, with the edits in.
Hereís an example with your longest poem in the book:
IN DARKNESS LIGHT-HEADED
It isnít that Iím looking out the window, because here in the basement
††† there is no window, or rather the two windows there are
are glass block, ground level: mute light streams through,
Or it isnít that Iím out the window, but that no such place exists makes me
††† nervous of the swirling greeny prospects. My grass is a martini with a twist,
††† which is to say, somebody got murdered for a beautiful life, which is to say
I have concerned my whole world with aesthetics. With aesthetics, the seeing it through
††† to the end of making cardinals and splitting their heads to find that ††† raindrops
††† keep falling on my only day to golf in a world I donít belong in a taxi in.
It isnít that Iím looking out the window at destruction, because Iím happy
truly. But how can this be?
Still, it isnít so much that Iím astonished, but that Iím still looking
††† out the window. Itís an honor to be making this long trip from China,
†††† but of course, no such body exists. Gold teeth. Sand trap.
††† This gold bag of loneliness linking my ceiling to a set of constraints,
allowing my falling in love in. In love in pitch darkness, feathered and tired
††† to the wishbone. If I were a bird or if you were.
††† If the world were in-actually ending. Drunk on our ††† meadowlark,
††† knees on our toes. Litter box. Litterbug. Same fucking thing.
But really it isnít the same thing. Iím looking out the window repeatedly
on purpose. My little life purportedly decaying on purpose. Will hospice to ††† the rescue me?††† Eventually we all go windmill. The horizon, the horizon. ††† Chinese handcuffs.
I mean, it isnít that this isnít a beautiful life. Painting this address I can feel nothing
better than everything. In a world we donít belong in, in lovely in love in,
Iím singing out my window, on a sunny day in Sept . or July. I am but I am not.
††† And you are with me always, and astonished in your sandtrap, knowing full-well
that we are our own best suppliers of goods and evils, hellís heavenís heavens.
††† My neighbor ítis of thee, my collaborator lost, lovely in lovely in lovely in ††† love, I stand††† where you stand.
That was a long example, I realize, but as it is, I feel bad, cutting that poem to pieces. The final stanza reminds me of Leaves of Grass. So, can you talk about your affection as a writer forÖvisible flailing? I donít know the literary term for it.
Iím glad you brought this up, but rather than visible flailing, Iíd probably want to characterize it as simply a constant demonstration of a process, particularly with the regard to the formal and associative moves that go into the making of the poem. That said, I do like the idea of a visible humanity in poems, which I might further refine into a phrase like controlled sloppinessÖ or something along those lines. I donít know. But I think ďIn Darkness Light-HeadedĒ is one of the really extreme examples in the book of both attentiveness to formal concerns and process while at the same time trying to connect to YOU and to stand where you stand, even in the face of not being able to do that exactly. I mean, I canít be you, and I canít feel your pain (or your joy), but I can try as much as possible to walk in your shoes or just be there to listen when thatís the thing thatís needed. I can try to be human (sympathize, empathize) in spite of the noise -- connect in whatever way thatís possible.
Maybe itís more clear to point out that I think of this poem (and have from the start) as a sort of decaying sonnet (so a love poem) with fourteen parts, rather than fourteen lines, i.e. the first part is fourteen lines, the second thirteen lines, the third twelve lines, etc. until the fourteenth part is only one line -- itís a long line, but itís one line. Additionally, thereís a fairly literal volta (electric!) after part eight, so the sonnetís referenced there as well. I also really tried to make the final two parts sort of sum the whole thing up, like a final couplet of sorts. So the logic of the sonnet is here in addition to the 14 lines/parts.
I love received forms, but I love them as endlessly expandable ideas rather than as blanks to fill in. I always love when people take a recognizable form and do something to it in their own image. In ďIn DarknessĒ I wanted to blow the sonnet up in a way that would make it a container for, and a progenitor of, EVERYTHING, but at its heart I wanted a clear true thing -- something I could get to and hold onto and take home. So by making the fourteen lines fourteen parts, I knew Iíd have some room to stretch out, and then I used collage and repetition to create a structure with some density and I hope, too, both gravity and humor. All along the way I was also chipping away at the very structure I was building, trying to figure out what was there that wasnít there -- the soul of the poem, its core idea. In the end the poem sort of resembles a building which is being constructed and demolished simultaneously -- deconstructed (O double yikes!) -- as a way to get at the meaning contained in the atmosphere of its own creation/destruction, as well as that contained in the atmosphere of the words themselves.
ďDo I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself.Ē Thank you Mr. Whitman.
So yeah, I love that you mentioned Whitman, who gave us, more than almost anybody, the noise and joy and debris of what is in a great big voice both sloppy and clear, plaintive and lovely, holy and low. I dig Leaves of Grass, its wilderness and meander and yawping and talking and lecturing and preaching -- and for god sakes SINGING. ďFor you, for you I am trilling these songs,Ē he wrote in ďFor You, O Democracy.Ē I would love to really sing a song for somebody with a poem. I would love to stand where they stand and to have them stand with me. I always feel so included reading Whitman, and for all his visible flailing, controlled and uncontrolled sloppiness, I still want to be there and not just as a bystander, but right there beside him -- who wouldnít want to contain multitudes? Thatís huge.
That is huge. Can we come back to the Wolf? Thereís a balancing act going on in your poems. Youíre saying several things at once. Here are the things Iím hearing most:
I want to know my wolf.
I need to know my wolf.
I donít really need to know my wolf.
Iíll never really know my wolf.
I just need to know how to think about my wolf.
I need to stop thinking about my wolf.
I already know my wolf.
I hope that wasnít a wolf.
Whew! No wolves here.
I wish a wolf would attack me.
I was attacked by a wolf!
Whatís up, Wolf Face?
Whatís up is that everything has a shadow, surfaces and depths, (mostly good?) intentions in tension with desire and doubt and the anxiety of NOT KNOWING (much of anything with certainty). Whatís up are mysteries, contradictions, and the inadequacy of THE FACTS to explain or prove anything significant/essentially. Whatís in the basement, and whatís in the attic? What are the expectations, and what happens when they fail us (which is often, Iíd say -- or often enough). In other words, Iím deeply suspicious of rational thought as an anchor for behavior and belief (especially in art). Belief has nothing to do with the facts, and the facts donít necessarily provide us with a foundation for believing anything. Whatís a fact anyway? And yet all the really important stuff -- Iím talking about the philosophical questions that are the scaffolding of belief (including how we FEEL and relationships we have with other people) -- canít be rationalized with good sense and logic. Careful thought wonít help much when it comes to love or hatred, or whether life is meaningful, or why people do horrible, unconscionable things to one another. Life in a significant sense doesnít make any SENSE, or at the very least the sense it makes isnít something I trust entirely -- itís unpredictable -- so I run around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying not to run into the wolf, or trying to make peace with it, or trying to see it as manís best friend, but thatís pretty hard to do with no head. Breton said somewhere that ďA poem must be a debacle of the intellect,Ē which seems right on to me (and ďseemingĒ is about as good as it gets). Poetry isnít about proving anything; itís about fuck-up and flood -- maybe not totally, but essentially, because itís always the misuse and mismanagement of (ordinary) language (which is the only language weíve got) to create artistic effects/affect. The meaning and message and function of words is contextual, but that also makes them slippery (which is why poetryís so fun and amazing and strange). The same sentence (for example, ďIíll never really know my wolfĒ) used in a philosophical context, on a construction site, or in a poem could mean something entirely different or not mean anything at all (which is even scarier than meaning something unexpected, if you ask me -- you did ask me, didnít you?). Anyway, this is the atmosphere in which I write my poems -- 100% parenthetical everything (Everything has a shadow, even this). And itís the parentheses where we find whatís most interesting about the line or the sentence or life).
If youíre ever walking through a construction site, I hope, for me, youíll manage to work in the sentence, ďIíll never really know my wolf.Ē In your poems, the music and logic (illogic) always seem effortless to me. What is it you struggle with most when writing poems?
Seeming effortless. Thereís nothing worse than forcing a poem into a ship-shape it doesnít want to be in, which always makes for something labored and over-determined and willful. I donít want to be willful. I want to trust the process. I want to have faith -- which is the other thing I struggle with. The hardest thing for any artist is having faith in his selectivity, his materials, his sensibility. Most of the time when somebody, whoís really engaged in the art of poetry says Iím struggling with line breaks or music or what have you, what theyíre really struggling with is having faith in who they actually are as a poet in relationship to all their expectations about what a poem OUGHT TO BE. And this big prescriptive ďought toĒ comes out of everything theyíve read and everything theyíve been taught about POETRY. The thing one has to keep in mind -- and that I (as much as anybody) have all the trouble in the world keeping in mind -- is that we revere the great poets of the past, the poets we love and revere for turning poetry upside down and expanding the notion of what poetry can be, for the way they established the rules, not for the ways that they followed them. So, for example, if Kenneth Koch had let himself be contained and constrained by what he knew a poem to be, he wouldíve never written ďWhen the Sun Tries to Go OnĒ and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman would never have written anything. Nor would Ted Berrigan have written The Sonnets or Alice Notley In the Pines or Paul Violi ďIndexĒ and ďPolice BlotterĒ and the entirety of Overnight. Darcie Dennigan would never write another word. But how to have faith when youíre totally off the beaten path of righteousness. Or when something seems ďwrongĒ but you like it? We need to fail harder. And we need to believe in it. I need to believe in it. My success is in my failure to live up to what I know to be the ideal. The problem is 1) trusting that and 2) being able to see it in the moment before one revises oneself into the oblivion of a comfortable sameness. Trusting oneself IS effortless, and yet itís holy hell impossible, too. At the end of the day I really feel like that whole New Sincerity thing that I got lumped into a few years ago was about one thing: deliberately believing in a process for making a poem that one knows wonít work and yet believes in anyway. Iím always telling my students: You have to make indefensible statements in your art, and defend them with your whole being. Was ďHowlĒ defensible -- hell no -- and thank goodness it wasnít. Ginsberg felt free to write whatever he felt, because he knew it would be unpublishable -- his success was in his deliberate failure to write according to his expectations about what a poem SHOULD and COULD be. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
I'm not sure if anybody's pointed this out, but you use a TON of similes. From my count, there are 63 instances of "like" used as a simile in Wolf Face. You even liken a simile to a phone booth in ďOde to Anybody Left Standing.Ē I find that really interesting, considering there's been a trend with contemporary writers to avoid similes -- the thought being that they're too P\poemy and not enough like real speech. I get the feeling that youíre drawn to figurative language because of its ability to ratchet up the pressure within a poem while providing clarification. Not just clarification but options. Different ways of seeing/feeling whatever you (and your reader) are looking at/thinking about. What would you say?
I donít know if Iím more weirded out by all my similes or that you counted them. But hell yeah, Iím big-time into seeing things in terms of what they arenít. Why look at (TRUST) things as they are?
I wonder how many metaphors there are in Wolf Face? No, Iím not going to count them. I wonder how much Personification and Metonymy?
No matter how it adds up or doesnít, I guess I think one of the things poetry does best is to reinvent the world immediately/right in front of us. Sometimes it does it via a sim(ile)ple comparison. Other times you need the transformative heft of the metaphor and what philosopher Timothy Binkley called the ďartistic identification of is,Ē where one says or writes that one thing IS something it isnít as a way of making both a comparison and a whole new critter (think Duchampís ready-mades or Rauschenbergís Bed). Certainly figurative language can, as you point out, ratchet up the pressure in a poem by destabilizing its contents, making them move fast and crash into one another (and us). Itís also true that they can clarify things at the same time.
But to return to something we were talking about near the beginning of this conversation, itís also a way of yanking up the carpet and seeing what the floor or the Voidís like underneath, or of opening up the bird and looking for its music. Itís a way of under/mining appearances for the substances that make them glow (or keep them from it), so it makes perfect sense to me given my general skepticism about what is that I would attempting at one in the same time to believe as hard as I can in the world that works (experientially, emotionally, intellectually, etc) and at the same time to be hell-bent on blowing it open to see how that happens. Is there really SOMETHING there, or is it me in charge? I donít want to be in charge, but increasingly I believe I am, and we are. Which is why I am my own wolf face, and sometimes itís a real wolf face and sometimes itís a mask. Sometimes itís a pose or itís eating my Matt face. Everything is exactly what it seems to be, but itís also (at least potentially) so much more than that. Poetry makes more of everything -- or it distills things in such a crystalline way that they become myriad.
Itís funny, though: That simile you mention from ďOde to Anybody Left StandingĒ where I compare a simile to a phone booth is a deliberate fuck up, and a crack on the simile itself. A lot of people hate figurative language -- not controlled enough -- and lots of adults in this country have never even seen an actual phone booth. We donít really have phone booths in Cincinnati anymore. Do you see a lot of them in Chicago? Weirdly, theyíre a reminder of a less convenient time, and yet they were all about being able to make calls convenientlyÖ How is a simile like a phone both? Both are obsolete, sloppy, inconvenient, unthinkable, nostalgic, mushy forms for communication. And yet, that whole poem is about how to communicate in the absence of convenience. At oneís witís ends, one goes back to singing -- the mushiest communication style of all.
Itís a sloppy figure of speech (both the simile as figure and the example in question). Thatís why I love it. Itís less than focused. Not very precise. Nothingís precise, but everything is possible. And Iíll take the latter over the former any day.
Elizabeth Hildreth lives in Chicago. Sheís a regular interviewer for Bookslut. She blogs at The Effect of Small Animals.