An Interview with Phil Cordelli
Sometime in early 2006, I read a couple of poems online written by Phil Cordelli and Brandon Shimoda as "The Pines." I really liked these poems, so I visited the Pines blog to find out more and ordered their book Volume 1. Phil put Volume 2 into the envelope as well. What I felt reading those books was akin to what I felt when I met Phil a little while later, the night I read for the first time in Brooklyn. I met a lot of great people that night. But meeting Phil felt like meeting someone from the old land. What old land? If I knew that, I'd be home by now.
Phil Cordelli's new chapbook, Book of Numbers / Book of Letters, is available from Agnes Fox Press. (Read an excerpt at the AFP site.) He is also the author of New Wave (Blazevox e-book) and coauthor of The Pines, Volumes 1-6.
I love the look of the numbers and letters that serve as titles for the poems in this new book. They look true. Where did these titles come from?
For me, titling is usually simply a marker of process or an organizing principle. In this case, I started with instances of numbers appearing in a particular notebook and took the words surrounding those numbers. After working through one notebook, I had the idea to go through others, going backward in time, using the number-method as a kind of core sample through these collections, getting a slant on the thoughts, experiences, words. So the first notebook was from NYC, then others stretching back to high school.
I began to think of it as a kind of census, which led me to the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament, and that's where the title of the chapbook came from. I tried for the longest time to come up with another name, but with titling I am so literal that I couldn't come up with ANYTHING else satisfactory, although I kinda hate the title for being ponderous. I have nursed a prejudice for a long time against books that call themselves "Book of..." or even worse "The Book of..." and I can only hope that the contents of this book will immediately defuse any grandiose notions.
The "letters" angle came in because I was working on the last poem, "Dear," at the same time, the entirety of which came from the first e-mails I ever received, and was much longer at that point. Before e-mail became so disposable to me, when my view was still conditioned by letters and postcards, I would save most every e-mail I got and then periodically go through and copy them into a Word document and print them out. So the beginning with the numbers and the end with the letters seemed to grow into each other and branch out, and mingle.
The title "7296" made me wonder: is Book of Numbers / Book of Letters part of some other huge manuscript?
It's not currently part of a larger project, although there are directions and angles and room for expansion in there that I think could be developed. But I am going to try not to, for the sake of not lingering too long in the past.
Sometimes I have the feeling that numbers are giving me a message. Do you relate to numbers that way? Are you interested in numerology?
I don't know much about numerology, but I am fairly superstitious, and numbers have always had importance in that form. For instance, I'm always fiddling with my alarm clock to find a good number to wake up to -- I'll go through them on the speed-through feature as if it were a roulette wheel, and kinda feel out the numbers. The main thing for me is not to wake up on any :00s or :15s. I like having a little irregularity there.
Do your poems tend to arise from thinking or does thinking come later, when you're organizing material?
They are products of no great reflection, coherence or argument. In the manner of the importance of numbers, I feel that they are little clusters of superstition or magnetic, linguistic, emotional attraction, and I suppose I do more thinking when organizing, although even then, not much. In all my time of writing and reading and talking over poems, be they my own or others', I haven't been able to articulate very well how this thinking proceeds. I'm not really sure at all that these poems are mine, that they are even things I have done.
I mean I love lingering over them, turning them over in my mind, and thinking back through the memories and impressions and musics, as well as the newly encountered ideas and correspondences that arise. But I'm not entirely sure yet how these things might function in the larger world of readership, what importance they might have to others.
More recently, maybe starting with this book, I've been interested in letting the process of composition take a greater transparency, letting it rest on the page in the shape it was laid down, and not sculpting it so much. It used to be that every word I wrote had to play pinball inside the poem, playing words and sections off each other constantly. New Wave was an attempt at the expulsion of the compulsive editor. I still though find myself reworking and rewriting poems from five, six, seven years ago in the plant poems.
How do you approach building a poem?
Coming to poetry rather sideways, I often feel as if I have no solid foundation on which I write. I've always been very taken with the scavenged, the provisional, the tentative. I like to think that each project has its own approach, method of composition, and method of editing. Once it was all writing that occurred on a particular bus line, once it was to compose only in a particular shirt, once it was to compose only using letters and punctuation found in a poem by a famous author, and for a long while now it has been to write poems in the company of plants, and to collect passages from my notebooks where they are next to where I noted or wrote about plants. BoN/BoL was an offshoot of that process.
Is building a poem similar to building a book?
The processes have been intimately tied. Most of my projects have started with the form or scope at least of a chapbook in mind, although with BoN/BoL many of the poems came before the idea of this collection. I've never really believed all that much in THE poem, or perhaps it's simply that mine have never been that strong, as individuals.
Backing up for a minute, can you say a little more about the plant poems you mentioned? When did you begin that series? And have the poems changed noticeably since you moved from the city up to western Massachusetts? Have they been influenced by your current job, managing an organic farm?
Those poems include some of the first Poems I ever wrote, circa maybe late 2003, from before I moved to the city. They have been made and remade by a few different selves. Some I have forced myself to let stand, much is continually being reworked, and much has been completely erased and written again. The whole of the plant poems is called Plant Life, which I've been breaking into a few more manageable pieces, like the grasses, and woody plants, and lately I've been working on a manual of agriculture, with an eye back to ancient manuals, in which creativity and ritual slaughter were more prevalent.
In many ways I find my life as a poet to run counter to the agricultural enterprise. There is a deadening to the world in which one lives that comes I suppose with almost any job, but which I think is particularly prevalent in farming. The margins are so thin, the hours so long, and the farm or property so bounded that I'm constantly fighting to remain sensitive, alive, human. This rootedness that I feel, which so binds me to this place where I labor, has heightened my involvement in the plant poems, while at the same time making it much more difficult. To be part of the daily death of so many thousands of plants to feed my human nature has been difficult, and has led me to draw back a bit from the plant world, but at the same time to begin this critique/satire/lament of and for agriculture, which is so central to the fact of human life.
Are you still part of Ugly Duckling Presse?
Hanging on by a thread, the slimmest of threads. Now geographically removed and trying to elbow out the time to write, I just can't keep up with them down there. They've reached a fever pitch of activity, a swirl of printing, fundraising, reading, event-ing. I love what they do, and UDP was one of the reasons I stayed in New York City as long as I did, as well as one of the reasons I actually moved there. They were really my ushers into the world of poets and poetry in general, and immediately made me feel at ease there.
Had you made books before you started working with UDP?
I had been interested in artists' books in the past, but had never put anything together in the form of a book. I'm thinking back to college-era, when making films was an outlet for an interest in sequencing, rhythm, and editing, a means of unfolding the visual imagery I had been working with, taking it into the medium of time. Although I've stopped filming and mostly also photographing, I have been making some books again, which are not multiples and contain no words -- a hard thing after so much time spent thinking in words and composing in words. But then, words actually have nothing necessarily to do with books, I don't think. When I started writing, I thought of what I put together as a script, sequencing words and images with filmmaking very much on my mind, and specifically the movie Sans Soleil by Chris Marker. This was out in California, and I was trying to capture the various landscapes and spaces I was moving through and living in.
The first books I ever saw of yours were beautiful volumes written by you and Brandon Shimoda as "The Pines." Could you talk a little about working with Brandon on those books? What's happening with The Pines at this point?
As a person, I grew up in large part by speaking with Brandon, and as a poet in large part by writing with Brandon. I really can't overstate the importance that his presence and poetry and process has had on me. Watching each other's poems take shape, take different directions, respond and change as our lives have changed, seeing how he collects material and forms it, has been invaluable. I began writing poems in earnest in conversation with him, so from the beginning, another's voice was inside my writing. Actually the first poems I wrote aside from lovestruck teenage poems were collages of passages and words cut from books found at Goodwill and the town dump and textbooks taken from our high school.
As The Pines, I didn't have to speak: it wasn't me -- and this was incredibly freeing -- I could speak and remain silent, I could forget about trying to "find my voice" as a poet. And as the collaboration and my own writing went on, I could forget about this mania I have for editing and shuffling words and lines around, an impulse to precision that I think has to do with the voice and with a mistrust of my own voice (actually a dread of my own voice when heard).
Collaborating with Brandon, somewhere along the line and surprisingly quickly, a third voice seemed to emerge -- not a homogenous or even recognizable voice perhaps, but many lines and passages began appearing that both of us swore the other had written, lines neither of us would have written. A couple of volumes have been marinating very slowly, and that we're both in the Northeast for the first time since maybe college-era is auspicious for some new work to be done.
You and Brandon have known each other since you were kids?
Not quite kids -- maybe 5th grade we encountered each other a few times, tentatively, and became friends later, through a shared and profound boredom toward the organized sport we found ourselves trapped in. Our houses back then were separated by a ten or fifteen minute walk through a couple of patches of woods and backyards, the reenactment of which became Volume 2, which was the result of the first writing we did together.
We grew up a few minutes from where Charles Ives grew up. I didnít know that then and wouldnít have cared, but he has come to be more of a presence to me as I grow older and persist in writing. There is something of his maintenance of boundaries in his artistic and professional lives that I feel close to, and have tried to emulate, even as I bemoan its effects. Iíve never wished to be a poetic insider, or to be dependent on publishing my work -- even though my sense of myself and my own worth is in fact so tied to my art.
When I said before that the titles in Book of Numbers / Book of Letters look true, I meant that they're convincing. They suggest a scientific approach --- as if the poems are specimens you've been collecting, or some sort of research. Do you see your work as having a scientific quality?
There is a science to or in my work only in bastardized form, both in the sense that I am very rarely strict in the method and in the sense that I believe in poetry as a conduit for the irrational or extra-rational as much as an instrument of understanding. I find myself vacillating between a poetry of thought or observation and of trance or reverie. I do enjoy going back through notebooks after a long period of time since it gives me the opportunity to work with the words and thoughts in the manner of a collaboration. I miss it, in a way, since I've begun composing more directly in poetry or for books or projects and not simply for myself, although actually and increasingly I think that this all might be just for myself or a few others. I don't know how well any of it can survive the whole process of bringing it to light, especially those plant poems, which have grown to an almost absolutely unpublishable tangle.
Though of course here I am, feeding the dispersal of myself and work out into the spheres, so I do still wish for some public life. And I do feel incredibly lucky to have worked with the Agnes Fox folks on BoN/BoL in that, as shepherds of the work out into book form, Lesley Yalen and Lewis Freedman really engaged with and attended to and left their mark on the book. And of course throwing these things out into the public sphere has led to friendships such as those, and with you and Max, and now I am reminded again of why this all can be so rewarding.
How do you feel about reading publicly?
As I've read more and become more comfortable with it, and as I've become more comfortable with my work, I feel that speaking a poem aloud to an audience is a vital part of its life, even to the extent that work solely for the page (which I used to see all my work as, exclusively) is just not as vibrant for me, doesnít resonate quite as much (speaking only of my own work).
I generally feel that a poem is something apart from myself and part of my work has been about erasing myself and my own voice, or to find a new voice or voices, or to see one's voice or words from outside, or more relevantly to BoN/BoL to contemplate the voices that have been and that must still make up my voice, and, as in the last poem in the book, the voices of others that speak through me.
The poem "Dear" that ends Book of Numbers / Book of Names has a magical quality. I've heard you read it and felt the room lean forward. You said earlier that it came entirely from e-mails, but those opening lines "My dearest husband / I am afraid for you / and your new army" don't seem like something anyone would've written you in an e-mail. I'd like to ask you to tell more about that poem, but I hesitate because of the magical aspect. I wonder: how do you feel about answering specific questions about a poem, questions that might remove mystery?
Those first lines came from something my dad forwarded to me in an e-mail, probably from early Iraq war-time. He used to forward me all sorts of weird right-wing stuff, like photos of botched abortions and profiles of welfare scammers and gay Boy Scout leaders, until I finally threw a fit. Every little bit of the book has all these threads of memory and experience and thought, all this weight, condensed -- and of course in that, it's like all the others -- I don't mean to say it's anything different or special for that. I don't mind talking about it. I may have said this already but I have no idea what a reader gets out of the book, and I think there is only a vague connection to what I "put in."
That last poem may have more magical qualities since it doesn't contain any of my own words, which maybe allowed me to speak more directly to the reader.