An Interview with Stephen Burt
"What we can't say openly / we say in poetry," writes Stephen Burt in his poetry collection Belmont. One might approach the project of interviewing a poet who expresses this sentiment with a certain amount of ironic distance. If the poet in question were Stephen Burt, this caution would be entirely unnecessary. During the following conversation, which took place by email over the course of a few weeks, Burt was never anything but forthright, generous, and voluminous in his responses.
The poet-critic -- recently the subject of a New York Times profile that bore the headline "Poetry's Cross-Dressing Kingmaker" -- teaches at Harvard and lives with his spouse and their two sons in Belmont, Massachusetts. (The town furnishes the name for his third book of poetry.) One of Belmont's characteristic features is its expansive range of cultural referents; that range is, actually, a characteristic feature of Burt's conversation more broadly conceived. In the course of this interview, Burt talks about persona poems, genderqueerness, his taste in pronouns and proper nouns, jalapeno-inflected ale, That Edmundson Piece in Harper's (yes, that one), and recommends as much poetry, fiction, memoir, and scholarship as he possibly can.
What things that you've consumed in the past month or so -- heard, seen, read, watched, or eaten -- have delighted you most?
The forthcoming Sleepyhead album. Irn-Bru curry at Kismot restaurant in Edinburgh. Shanna Compton's new book, Brink. Rachel Trousdale's academic article on humor in Marianne Moore's poetry. Walking around the Old Town in Edinburgh. TED talks by Bernie Krause, Gavin Pretor-Pinny and Alexa Meade, also in Edinburgh, followed by a picnic. A lamb belly appetizer at Puritan & Company restaurant in Cambridge. A jalapeno-inflected ale at the same place. A white skirt I bought at Revival in Iowa City to wear for a reading that night. Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City. About half of Mary Szybist's Incarnadine. Lucinda, a chapbook by John Beer. Evelyn Reilly's Apocalypso, especially the first half. Rebecca Hazelton's Vow. The anthology New Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, edited by Robert Crawford, in which twelve contemporary Scottish poets respond in some fashion to Burns. Even the poems I don't normally like turn into provocative, original, resonant verse, and it doesn't sound like anything ever written by Americans in America, which is one reason American readers should read it.
You've talked quite a bit in other interviews about the business of poetry, the state of poetry, and what it's like to be one of those Janus-faced creatures called a poet-critic. All that's very interesting and you have very interesting things to say about those things, but I would like to talk to you about poems and what it's like for you to make poems. One of the continuities from your previous collections of poetry -- Popular Music and Parallel Play -- seems to me a preoccupation with the uses and the limits of the persona poem. In Belmont, you animate (among other things) a glow-in-the-dark astronomy globe, an owl, and the much-maligned pop star Avril Lavigne. What draws you to the vehicle of the persona poem? Why these personae in particular?
Persona poems. I love them. I'm always looking for more of them. I may be teaching a mini-class next year about them. I'm glad you noticed.
I am a transgender person -- I would rather be Stephanie, all else being equal (which it's not) -- and so of course I'm attracted to ways in which poems let me speak as, speak for, pretend to be, a fictional character obviously not myself. Some of those alter egos are ego-ideals, admirable imaginary characters or personae from "popular" culture; almost all those alter egos are women, or girls.
That's a right answer, but it isn't the only one. I like poetic impersonations, ways to speak as some other definite self, for reasons that aren't half restricted to gender, and some of my alter egos, those personae, are genderless (a child's astronomy globe, a talking stapler) or fey but clearly male (Kermit the Frog). I have a lot more in common, in my real life, with Kermit the Frog than with Avril Lavigne, though I still wish I'd written "He Wasn't" and "Complicated." (Both the Kermit poem and the Avril song, by the way, have to do with artists who wonder how much control we can really have over our art.)
It seems to me that poetry in general lets you create a voice that is you-but-not-you, you-but-like-you, you-as-someone-else, for the writer and also for the reader: that character can speak about you, for you, to you, in ways that you couldn't pull off speaking "as yourself."
Sometimes the persona, the you-who-speaks-the-poem, has no name and not much extension other than what's brought about by the author's style (the "I" in a lot of poems by Emily Dickinson), and sometimes the persona has a great deal of extension, a prior life as a historical or fictional character (Robert Browning's Andrea del Sarto), and sometimes the persona's somewhere in between (Philip Sidney's Astrophel). Even a poem that looks autobiographical constructs a character anyway -- it's just that the character shares obvious attributes, such as location, approximate age, and marital status, with the "bundle of accident and incoherence who sits down to breakfast," as Yeats put it, the real-life poet who wrote the poem.
Yeats, who wrote wonderful persona poems (Crazy Jane, Wandering Aengus, "Two Songs of a Fool") and also created (in his lyric poems) self-consciously dramatized versions of himself, thought that we were all trying to become, or fated to become, something other than ourselves, something opposite to our originary personalities, in real life, never mind in poems. That's one of the less outré notions in A Vision, a book that has more sense in it than most poetry readers believe.
Yeats was the first poet whom I wanted my own poetry to resemble. Sometimes I still do.
Although, sometimes your persona poems are as much about what people can't help being as they are about the fantasy-element of assuming another identity. Because, well, there are certain constraints on what we can choose -- on the privilege of being able to choose -- a privilege that is never distributed equally among people or even for the same person over the course of a lifetime. And this also seems to me like one of your enduring preoccupations -- trying to figure out not only which selves it's possible to be but also how to account for your own particular powers of decision relative to those of others: "speaking about another as myself," you write in "Kendall Square in the Rain," "Who has the right / to say who has the right?"
Like Yeats, we are called upon to practice the art of bilocation. Unlike Yeats, very few of us have mastered it well enough to sit in the study and watch the other self out walking in the garden. I agree about A Vision -- which I can admire for its scope, its earnest systematicity, its wonky, impossible dream of how history works -- even as I think that making "sense" of it means changing your ideas about what sense means in the first place.
Yeats has been popping up all over the place lately, in part, I think, because he shows up in that Mark Edmundson piece in Harper's as an approved poet in the prophetic vein, one who "never hedges." In that essay, Edmundson laments (as it appears someone must do every few years) the decline of poetry into omphalic, ambivalent trivia. There have already been quite a few impassioned responses to that piece -- one by Seth Abramson for The Huffington Post, another by Katy Waldman for Slate. The latter, rightly, I think, points out that Yeats is a "veritable king of ambivalence" -- and that his ambition coexists with that ambivalence. One way of answering Edmundson is to say that the poets he defends cared about incertitude and minutiae, too. Another is to argue that contemporary poets never stopped caring about sex and politics and money, and that Edmundson is either reading the wrong ones or not reading well enough in the first place. Maybe a better way of responding is to suggest that contemporary poetry is so capacious that it stretches from the desperately personal to the diligently public-minded and touches every point on the spectrum in between.
If there's any argument at all in Belmont, it seems to me that it's implicitly about how to value the trivial, the personal, and the occasional, the "Rosehips in top-heavy clusters at red lights / along our traffic median, / their tart flesh no doubt poisoned from its air" ("Text Messages"). Where you think you fall on this spectrum from desperation to diligence and what reasons might there be to read the kind of poems you write, as well as those that have very different tendencies and commitments? Is this something you worry about? Are you all right with being the hero of the minor?
Yes, contemporary poetry is capacious, though our most diligently public-minded poets may not be our most exciting... which brings you and brings me back to my suburb, or town, and to how and whether and why my poems might be public or political.
I value the trivial, the personal, and the occasional very highly indeed. They are much (though not all) of what a public life, and a politics, and an ethics, and even a state, exist to defend. Those rosehips are real, by the way, and that epigram really does say something (something ambivalent!) about what it means to be "public": on the one hand, you can't eat them (not private or protected enough; more privacy would be better), and then on the other hand the reason you can't eat them is that the road (in this case, Concord Avenue) is full of cars, and cars pollute, and air pollution is a public problem (you can't solve it in your garden). So that poem is about our need for private space, domestic space, but it's also an enviro-protest poem of sorts.
Clare Cavanagh wrote a terrific scholarly book about public and political motives in Yeats and in lots of Russian and Polish poets; her book argues that when American and British readers look at Milosz, for example, and at other Polish poets from the time of the Iron Curtain, and wish that our poems could be public and political like theirs, we are getting things rather badly backward. What Milosz (and not only Milosz) liked in Western democracies was the way that our mores create a space where you don't have to be political, don't have to be public, all the time: we can be individuals, we can contemplate a private life, without being persecuted for it, without being told that we have to serve the state, nor to serve the opposition, even though we can also express political sentiments, work for political ends, without being punished for that.
I do write explicitly political poems. Belmont, like Parallel Play, has poems about elections! And it has several poems about global climate change ("The Future," "Brussels Sprouts on the Stalk"). And of course it has poems about sex and gender, poems about being trans (mostly in part two), which are political and personal at once in ways that I hope are obvious: "Stephanie" and "So Let Am Not" are coming-out poems, really. I think. And it has a lot of poems about domestic responsibilities, about how those responsibilities get divided up, about how a mother and a father who are raising kids together can model fairness, as well as love: "Words for Tea Towels," which must be the saddest poem in the book, is about feeling that that model has broken down, and "Sunday Afternoon" and "Owl Music" and the AM series ("Belmont Overture," "Poem of Seven AM," and "Poem of Six AM," which start in the workplace and end in the home) are about getting those responsibilities right. All those poems are political as well as personal.
So those poems are about small-scale personal occasions, but they are also political, too. (Mark Edmundson's positive examples of public political poems, by the way, all involve white guys writing about shooting wars. Funny, that.)
That said, I think you are absolutely correct about the whole book's implicit argument; I would be glad to be a hero of the minor.
I was hoping you'd say something to that effect -- vital, certainly, to ask how a public is constituted prior to or beside the question of how to be public. (I'm also with you on the ambivalence of real rosehips and worrisome concentrations of white guys and shooting wars.) One thing that strikes me about your work is the play of pronouns, especially the use of "we," "I," and "you" (implied or direct; envoi or apostrophe). "We meerkats are all smiles," you write in "Reverse Deciduous Existence." "I have run from and risen from the real and dimly / adumbrated shapes of suburban things / and then run back to them," the owl of "Owl Music" proclaims. "The Paraphilia Odes" begin with an invocation: "O my companions in microfiber & leather." Do you feel a special affinity for any of these pronominal usages? Does your taste in pronouns have anything to do with whom and what you see your poems as allying with or addressing?
Oooh, pronouns! I think about pronouns a lot. I'm self-conscious about them. I used to write "we" a lot when I really meant "I," or "I plus some unknown other number of people" (which is what "I" in most lyric poetry means anyway). "We" somehow gave me permission to say things that would have felt arrogant or silly had I attributed them to a "me," myself. Also "we" has no clear gender, and no age; it is not the experience of a single body, a single person, for whom a biography might have been written, and while "we" can denote a specified group (we Sarah Records fans, we New Englanders, we readers of Robert Browning, we Armenian-Americans) it doesn't have to be clear which one; often it's not, and I like it that way.
I think I say "we" less often in my newer poems, or else I say "we" with a clearer sense of who we are: meerkats, or Minnesotans, or people with unusual sexual preferences, or people who settle in suburbs, in "Exploring the Suburbs." That might be because I'm more comfortable saying "I," and it might be because I'm having more fun with persona poems, in which I am not necessarily "I."
It's quite important to me that my poems not address the same people, the same imagined readers or audience, every time. That means, among other things, that sometimes I want my pronoun use, and my paraphrasable sense more generally, to avoid slippage in terms of who says what to whom, and sometimes I positively want that slippage (as in the first- and second-person pronouns in Ashbery).
I like the idea that we can develop, or discover, a taste in pronouns. There should be tasting fairs, events in which writers can buy tickets to try out new ones. A non-Southern version of "y'all" (American informal second person plural), for example. Or "yo," demotic third-person non-gendered singular, so far used only by children who speak Black English, principally in Baltimore.
I will attend your pronoun tasting fair with great pleasure -- though I'd like to turn, now, to the proper noun tasting fair. You've never been afraid of a proper noun, it seems to me. Your first collection, Popular Music, is stuffed with references to indie bands; your second collection, Parallel Play, features cameos from a number of notable New York phenomena and epiphenomena. Your third collection -- in addition to using a proper noun for a title -- packs in allusions to the Legion of Super-Heroes comics, the rock band Breaking Circus, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Kermit the Frog, and a number of WNBA players. Would you like to talk about how your taste in proper nouns has evolved?
Sometimes I feel guilty about using so many of them -- but I wouldn't want to do without them. Proper nouns are a crutch, of a sort, or a way to get attention, or a support, a way to point outside the frame of the poem, to invoke something that I might share with some readers (to get those readers on my side, as it were, or at least to pique their interest) before the poem ever stands up, or falls down, as a poem. It's not just a sonnet (there are plenty of those); it's a sonnet about your hometown, or a couplet containing the name of your third-favorite band! So now you have to pay attention: it's not just a poem, it's a poem about something you like.
More seriously, or less apologetically, I often want my poems to be about things, and people, and works of art, that already exist in the real world, even if I want my poems and their structures of feeling to be generalizable, too. You shouldn't have to know anything about Breaking Circus to like the poem about Breaking Circus (indeed part of the point of the poem is that few people do know anything about them, alas -- it's about liking art that's both disagreeable and obscure). But if you do like Breaking Circus, I hope you think my poem describes their songs well. The poems are ancillary, they are commentary, they work as criticism, as reactions, even though I want them to be "primary," to stand on their own, as well.
I think that reading so many abstracted poems in the 1990s, so many poems that avoided declarative statement, so many poems that did not seem to be "about" anything more specific than "life," or "meaning," made me double down on my desire to write poems that really were about something, something that existed in the world outside the poem.
I don't know that my taste in proper nouns has evolved, generally -- I'm still writing poems (and prose) about some things I liked when I was fourteen! That said, my taste in proper nouns denoting places has certainly changed: I couldn't write about the greater Boston area effectively when I lived here in 1989-94, or even really about New England when I lived in New England (1989-94 and 1995-97), and now I do; and while I still love to visit New York City, where I lived from 1997-2000, I may not write very many, may not write any, more poems that take place there, just because there are so many poems about it already. I'm much more interested right now in writing poems about places -- and about people and works of art (like Breaking Circus) -- that are not already the subject of memorable poems.
That's illuminating. I like that you think of certain of your poems as works of criticism and absolutely agree that they are. I know I said I wasn't going to ask you about being a poet-critic per se but I suppose I nearly am now: which poems that double as works of criticism have been important for you? Are there any that are particularly important to Belmont?
All good poems double as criticism in some sense, since all good poems (as Empson says) must "show you the way in which they are trying to be good." That said, only some good poems go out of their way to tell you explicitly, or discursively, or paradoxically, how to read poetry, in a more general sense. Some of those poems -- some important to me -- are Ashbery's "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron," Marianne Moore's "Poetry," Jarrell's "Children Selecting Books in a Library" ("CHANGE, dear to all things not to themselves endeared"), Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" (to which Jarrell's poem alludes), Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Rae Armantrout's "Our Nature," quite a lot of Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters.
Can I also add works of fiction that go out of their way to say important things about how to read poetry? Because I've been living with a few of those this year: Slow Music by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon); Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers; and the book that's quite rightly a national all-ages bestseller right now, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
Compared to my first two books of poetry, Belmont probably has fewer poems about works of art by other people, or at least fewer poems about works of fine art by individual creators (there's artfulness in the design of a child's globe, or a median strip, or a promenade, too). Maybe for that reason, there aren't works of poetry-as-criticism (along the lines of Pope's "Epistle to Arbuthnot") that seem super-important to Belmont, to that book in particular, though there are such works (and I've just listed a few) that remain important to me.
I'm glad you mentioned Tiptree's Slow Music -- so clear-eyed, strange, and terrifying. I keep hoping someone will write a good book of poetry about Tiptree's work, though really I'd settle for even one poem. How do you approach questions of narrative in your own poems?
We expect most contemporary poetry to resist narrative, in one of two ways: either it takes a moment out of a life, or out of a story, or out of historical sequence, and opens it up to say what goes in "inside" a person at that moment, or at some unspecified moment in time (that is one meaning of "lyric" poetry); or else it tries to scramble or undo the existing narratives that supposedly (often without our consent, and even without our acknowledgment) explain and justify our socially-conditioned lives (that is one meaning of "radical" and one meaning of "experimental" and one... oh, you probably know what's coming next). These ways of proceeding within a poem are not mutually exclusive, and in fact it is easy for me to think of poets who do both; you might even arguing (following Adorno, or following a moped down a side street) that all worthwhile "lyric" poems do both.
And yet, and yet: one thing does come after another, some things that happen to us seem to cause other things that we do, and other things that have been done to us. And so if you want to write poems that do justice to life as we know it, you have to put narrative -- in the very largest sense -- in, if only around the edges, or on the side. There are "narrative" elements in the most clearly lyrical poems I know, and "narrative" elements in the most avant-garde. Conventions hit me, so I hit back.
None of my poems tells my own life story at length, and few my poems tell one-event-after-another stories in the way that "short stories," or six-page poems by James Merrill, often do. (You might say that "Nathan" is an exception.)
Many of my poems, though, situate themselves at one moment in one life, looking forward, looking back, and trying to figure out how this speaker, this persona, this character, ended up here. How did I get to be a teacher, a suburban parent, a figure who defines himself at once as happy and as suffused with regrets (and, also, a figure who defines himself as herself)? How did Kermit get to host The Muppet Show? How did Avril Lavigne become a star, and what could it feel like to be one, and how does a star at that level decide what she is going to do next?
What's it like to be a child's globe, to watch children make decisions, to see how they change? How can we think about the succession of events, the contributory causes, that are making the planet warmer and warmer, maybe too warm to support us? What about the succession of events that gives rise to a sculpture, to a marriage, to a piece of beachfront architecture, to a beach? All those are questions about narrative: if my poems embody them, my poems are "narrative," too.
What narratives that don't explicitly market themselves as poems or collections of poetry would you recommend?
Astro City by Kurt Busiek. Middlemarch by George Eliot. She's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Pamela by Pamela Lu, and The Transformation by Juliana Spahr (these last two books will largely appeal to the same people; I am one of those people). Short stories by Paul Lisicky. Short stories by Ted Chiang. "Tallulah" by Allo Darlin and "All These Things" by Darren Hanlon (these two songs will largely appeal to the same people; I am one of those people). "Train From Kansas City" by the Shangri-Las and by the Shop Assistants and by Neko Case and by Superchunk and in its fully transformed indie-pop version as the new song "Kings Cross Station" by Tender Trap. Jeff Noon's Twitter feed. Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather.
I just finished a three-year term on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, which was a lot of fun, not least because I had to read all the finalists in categories (such as memoir) where I don't otherwise try to keep up; one of my vivid discoveries there was Mira Bartok's The Memory Palace, a book as notable for its beautiful sentences as for its eventful life stories. Another great memoir I wouldn't have found without assistance is Meredith Hall's Without a Map.