February 2011

Elizabeth Hildreth

features

An Interview with Christopher Salerno

Christopher Salerno’s books include Minimum Heroic (Mississippi Review Poetry Series, 2010) and Whirligig (Spuyten Duyvil, 2006). A new chapbook, ATM, is just now out from Horse Less Press. New or recent poems can be found in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Jubilat, Jacket, American Letters and Commentary, Laurel Review, and others. He is currently an assistant professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey, and is managing editor of a brand new journal called Map Literary. He lives in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and Cary, North Carolina, and occasionally blogs at Whirl.

In January 2011, Christopher Salerno was interviewed by Elizabeth Hildreth over e-mail about Minimum Heroic. They discuss, among other things, aural snowshoes, the consistency of animals, loving the poetry of knowing less, feeling sorry for car alarms, how smashing Hot Wheels is like revising a draft of a poem, “getting at the suburban,” and having a nostalgia disorder.


So I was talking to my friend about how Minimum Heroic starts. The first two couplets of the poem “Photocopy of the Oral Tradition” are really weird (and I would argue, not really like any others in the book). They make the reader’s aural mind trip over itself so he or she has to (or I had to) read the stanzas a couple of times, like, Wait, is that right? Did he leave a word out or what?

I haven't papered the osprey's means
of drying out.

To become to bravery
what saying is the sentence.

Then later in the poem “Whirl” there’s a phrase "to craft the metalogical laws that govern our listening." And when I read that, I thought, he’s crafting an environment that governs our listening -- with those two trippy stanzas at the beginning. In essence, those first lines could function as a way to control the reader’s reading/listening pace. Like putting the reader into aural snowshoes instead of sneakers. Or maybe it’s not so much that those two stanzas were placed there for drag. Maybe it’s more like they’re functioning as a signpost, “This is what you’re in for. Slow speeds again.” I’m not saying this was a conscious choice on your part (though what do I know, maybe it was).  But it definitely seems in line with a number of other passages that communicate a reverence for slowness. This theme comes up again in the poem “In the Golden Age of Counterfeiting”:

Light itself takes a long time.
Language has but one god who made me slow.

And in “Gladioli Patience”:

Parking one bright thing
against a wall. Why is it we can’t
be careful? Our urgency is to dumb
as darkness is to doing wrong.

What do you think about my aural snowshoes theory? And why so slow, Salerno?

This first poem is for me like a preface, in that mostly I’m trying to begin with the idea that SAYING, or failing to say, has a long tradition with us, a history. Another day comes, and with it another opportunity to be clear, to be honest, to communicate, to be clean.

Your “snowshoes” is a perfect symbol for me. That’s the pace I want for every poem ever. I absolutely wanted to start out (and to default to) slow… like, “hey, let’s get down and crawl through stuff, okay?” And so I’ve always been obsessed with pushing syntax to the edge of conventional usage, to slow the reader, but I also hope to preserve the necessary communion of language and (the connotative idea of) sense. It seems like the most fun part of writing poetry for me is in the arrangement, the sounds, and the effort of realizing a composition (which is of course impossible). This practice has all but crippled me as a prose writer, to be honest, because I obsess even when I’m trying to be conventional. I wish I didn’t. But I’ve just always had weird impulses with syntax, on and off the page.

I remember reading a story about Robert Lowell handing off one of his manuscripts to a trusted friend for feedback, and getting the response, “You need to come a little closer to the language of the tribe,” or something to that effect.

Anyway, when I re-read that first stanza of “Photocopy of the Oral Tradition,” I remember how the verb “papered” was enough to get me through the whole poem, even if it is a mysterious verb. For me, “papered” is coming from the photocopying, which is technically a degrading act, degrading or downgrading the quality of the tradition, which is what we sometimes do. I feel like the poem is attempting some version of, “I haven’t wallpapered the room with photocopied images of hovering ospreys because I’d rather just talk. But, alas, I’m not really brave enough for a real, coherent conversation right now, given the nature of things, things being what they are.” That’s about as much as I know of the INTENT of that poem.

The second couplet of the book, the trippy one at the beginning, also seems like a declaration about wanting to be authentically brave. Thinking or writing a sentence isn't the same as saying one. The latter is public, embodied and engages the ear and the brain rather than the eye and the brain, as the former does. To say a sentence is to actually try it on and risk being heard, to find it in your mouth, to demonstrate a thought. Saying something in a context always has real consequences. So analogously to become brave in this way would be not merely a matter of thinking about bravery or writing about it, but demonstrating it, meaningfully -- doing something brave. The idea of bravery of course ties into the book's title, too. Or perhaps you’re simply making a distinction between the connectedness of thought, feeling, experience and the demonstration of that connectedness. One more thing: who’s the minimum hero? The speaker? The language itself?

The bravery that foregrounds the book is the bravery required to deal, to address, to admit, to engage or communicate, to say it to the face of the thing, like a person who has his or her shit together, is sober, has tried to “dry out” etc.

I also think of Minimum Heroic as a level of suburban, average decency that more people than not experience and find ideal. We are heroic in very minor ways out here in the suburbs, and that’s often enough to get us off. Mostly, given the situations that present themselves, we are just average in our heroism. I realize how that sounds, to find degrees of heroism, but I see it every day, and I wonder about the thresholds for heroism in our everyday lives… for those of us who aren’t soldiers or firefighters or what have you.

If I called these nature poems, would you punch me? I might punch myself. I hate nature poems. But your nature is made of “prototypical metallic bugs” and a “Styrofoam aviary.” Everything is all busted up and ruined, the landscape rubbing against filthy man-made things. In fact, my favorite nature poem in your book is “No, Ruin”:

I think I remember ruin:

nothing green. Ruin let me discover it when I couldn’t wait:

eyes after the rise of proof. Please just one

more frame before we lose the signal.

the wilderness is banging.

Would you agree that the wilderness is banging on these poems?

Exactamundo. Animals do nothing right, nothing wrong. Their consistency stands in such contrast to my inconsistency. Their only real law is to keep doing, and so they are the perfect characters for projections. And the nature of our human failures, our ruin, when contrasted against the consistency of animals, seems clearer to me. Animals show us how ridiculous we can be. Animals do that by never shutting up about what they’re doing. They’re always boasting about how rad their instincts are. From this I’ve learned that perhaps life is or should be about the exercising of one’s instinct. I sound like Robert Bly now maybe?  

I took a class with Robert Bly and he wore a shiny red vest every single class and to teach us about rhythm, he’d bang on the table and yell, “A man and a woman are one. A man and a woman and a blackbird are one!” He also explained how the Sufis created a kind of architecture so that everybody would cry as soon as they walked into the temple. (Another aside, did you know that Sufis pioneered the use of coffee?!) Anyway, in the same vein as the above question, by butting nature up against humans, by using it as a mirror, you make us uglier than we already are. Or maybe not uglier, maybe just more human -- which might be the same thing. For instance, in “Other People’s Lives” you write

New leaf:
I use it to make a drawing in the dirt:
A perfect face with something
the matter.

Why do the leaves get to be cute and we get to be human?

Because that contrast is sometimes what most allows me to feel what I’m set up to feel as a human being. I was walking to lunch one day last year along a busy college road lined with parked cars. I walked passed an SUV whose alarm had been going off for a while. The alarm, however, began to morph, strain, warping from the usual alarm sounds to sour notes. Maybe it was losing power or getting choked off or disconnecting, but it was like nothing I’d ever heard from a car alarm before. As I passed the car I felt this rush of sadness that both embarrassed and delighted me. How and why was I feeling sorry for an automobile? Oh, because it was sounding less like a machine, and more and more human.

I was about a third of the way into the manuscript when I witnessed something else that changed the way I thought about the book. I had just come out of my office and was waiting for a break in the busy traffic so I could cross the street. On the other side a man in a wheelchair rolled slowly down the sidewalk. He was alone, ragged looking, wearing a tattered babushka. As I waited for my moment to cross, I noticed he was just now standing up in front of the chair like some sort of miracle had taken place right there on the sidewalk. I wouldn’t call him sure-footed. But as I started to cross the street toward his position, he unzipped his pants and released this plastic tube that flooded the sidewalk with excrement. I couldn’t speak for hours after this happened. There was just so much “the matter” with it. A colostomy bag of sorrows.

By the way, I met Robert Bly up at Bennington College in 2002 where I attended a few of his early morning writing sessions. He made us get up at like 5:30 a.m. if we wanted to participate. I remember an object poem workshop where he gave me this rabbit pelt to write about. We carried on a short correspondence afterward, which ended with him telling me not to be such a rationalist. I went on to write a long (and now lost) paper on Carl Jung’s concept of the “shadow” and poets.

There’s a darkness -- a colostomy bag of sorrows, if you will -- that hangs over a lot of these poems. Especially compared to Whirligig, which is breezier with more irony and kick, more superficial certainty. Minimum Heroic seems to be working from a place of knowing less -- and ironically a deep confidence seems to come from this -- a feeling that thought in and of itself is enough. Like in the poem “Or”:

Two crayons float toward a leaf.
Chlorine revises them.

[…]

Inside, I am

tagging Ghost on the mirror.
If you know,

what use is the thought
after this one?

Or in the poem “Photocopy of the Oral Tradition”:

Day starts its animals.

We expect
the words will come to us.

To what do you attribute this shift in tone and belief?

Knowing less. Or admitting that I know less. And loving the poetry of knowing less, as I find it WAY more compelling. Yeah, I’m up for aphorism, I’m up for the business of teaching and delighting in poetry, but for me I’m much more compelled by uncertainties.   

Oh, I don’t know. I can’t resist the urge to make poems. And I suspect, like a lot of poets, something maybe has gone wrong somewhere in the history of us, and poetry might be the only field in which to address what demands attention but makes little sense.

I had a good time writing Whirligig. Finishing it was like realizing I had played the last serious whiffle ball game I would probably ever play. Any evolution between my first and second books I hope has something to do with progress. I don’t want to write the same poems over and over.

By the way, how you put this question with these examples makes me realize something about art and excess, and how maybe I was being sentimental more than I realized in these poems. Trying and failing and trying and failing and trying.

I had the most wonderful collection of Hot Wheels as a five year old. I loved them more than anything. But, one day I found a hammer and started smashing each one open, to see them in a new state (one that, I thought, could very well mimic reality if these miniature versions had been real cars. After all, they could be smashed!). I wanted to see them in a new way, finally. I do this to my drafts when I get bored with them.

Speaking of Whirligig, you have a poem “Homesickness” that appears in it, and then it also appears in Minimum Heroic. I found the editing changes you made fascinating. I love getting a look at backstage process. The edits were small but significant -- different critical phrases, different line breaks. Why’d you choose to include that poem again in this book?

I felt like putting it in this book because I thought it made sense to the arc. It probably didn’t matter much to anyone but me (it definitely didn’t matter much to anyone but me) but I felt like I wanted to make the point of that poem again in this book, or that to me it wanted to be in this book more than in Whirligig. The fact that I revised it was to fit with the feel of the book as I felt it at the time.

My friend’s book got trashed in a review the other day. I never like it when my friends’ books get taken down by reviewers, but the thing that annoyed me with this particular review is the reviewer seemed to come in with a prefab agenda about what the book should do and then was pissed when it didn’t do that thing. I was thinking that it doesn’t really matter what a reviewer likes or doesn’t like or feels ambivalent about in poetry. The most important blank to fill in before writing a review is: The author of this particular book is trying to do ________. If you had to fill in the blank, what would you say about your aim for this book?

There’s so much poetry being published now that it would be impossible for all of it to accommodate one set of sensibilities. But there are so many sensibilities that it’s a fine thing to have so much diversity of poetry. There are the occasional bad reviews, but mostly the folks who take the time to respond are those that are moved and want others to check out a book. This seems like the right track to me personally.

I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to trash a book. Like, oh, I better warn people not to pay ten bucks to see this film. There’s a difference between the audience at the Sundance Film Festival and the audience at the local Megaplex Cinema. We can’t pretend that we’re writing reviews for everyone who might walk into a bookstore or that people buy poetry books blindly and therefore need cautionary poetry reviews being published. Most poetry readers are poets themselves, and most reviewers are already friends with the poet they’re reviewing. Poetry sort of borrows reviewing strategies and schemas from other genres, but they aren’t always useful for us. Oh, I don’t know, this is one subject where I have a range of conflicting feelings. For the very reasons of audience I just stated above, I absolutely think there’s a place for specific and critical discussion of what’s happening in a book of poems, and what a book is worth in that regard.

To answer your final question, the author of this particular book is trying to render (fragments of) American suburban stock at a time when that stock is splitting at an incredible pace. I really wanted to write a book for the suburbs. I liked growing up in the suburbs. This might be because my suburbs in NJ always held the promise of NYC or the mountains or the beach within an hours drive. I might not feel the same about suburbs elsewhere. But I really wanted to get at the suburban in this book. To press my (lyric) life into and against that average.  

One challenge for me is that I have a number of different avenues for finding joy in writing poems, and they don’t always cohere, book wise. I’m obsessed with sound, composition, and control, and revision out the wazoo, but I also feel like poetry is one of the only places that I can express how goofy and whimsical I am as a person. It’s also a place to push the limits of my sentimentality and nostalgia, which is a major force in my life. I have nostalgia disorder, an old class of disease not on the books anymore. They used to diagnose soldiers with it, and some armies would even bury the afflicted alive to loosen the grips. Yikes!

Thanks, Elizabeth! For your insightful questions, and close reading. This was fun!

Elizabeth Hildreth is a regular interviewer for Bookslut. She lives in Chicago, works as instructional designer, and blogs at The Effect of Small Animals.