November 2013

Annie Kantar


An Interview with Peter Cole

On hearing 2007 MacArthur Fellow Peter Cole read the polyphonic title poem of his forthcoming collection, The Invention of Influence, I felt I'd been privy to a secret that needed to be shared. So I was delighted when Cole agreed to meet again and talk, not only because the poem plumbs so many vital questions -- of originality, discipleship, as well as good old writerly anxiety -- but also because Cole's surprising combination of modes and tacks makes The Invention of Influence one of the most startling and quietly moving books that I've read in a long time.

The author of three previous books of poems and some fifteen collections of translation from modern and medieval Hebrew and Arabic, and the recipient of honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, and a 2010 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Cole this time has, in Harold Bloom's estimation, outdone himself. In fact, in his foreword to The Invention of Influence, Bloom suggests that Cole's "exacting and often exhilarating poetic enterprise" may "presage a new kind of American Jewish poet." In the meantime, under the shade of various olive trees on the patio of the Jerusalem YMCA and later crosstown over email, I set out to explore what has gone into Cole's particular mix of erudition, ethics, and what he calls poetry's complex pleasure principle.

The last time we talked you said something to the effect that your ambition in poetry has become simpler over time, or clearer -- to write and live in a way that makes the world more interesting, not less. Period. I've been wondering, what makes the world more interesting for you?

For me? Vividness. Awareness of connective tissue on and across multiple planes. Sensuality. Susceptibility. Trees and flowers. Absorption of the music of ordinary instants and hours and registers of speech, and of the extraordinary. Alertness to comedy. Dignity. Baseball. Surprise. Marriage. Decent vermouth, and the occasional whitefish and lox from Zabar's.

Nice. So where in that mix would you put something like the long, layered title poem of this collection, "The Invention of Influence," which really does break new ground for you, as it pivots around what you've called the "agon" of Victor Tausk, one of Freud's most promising disciples, though also perhaps his most troubled one?

The Tausk poem emerged from that same connective tissue. It's a case history of susceptibility. And it totally blindsided me. Initially I wasn't interested in Tausk at all. At the start -- which I didn't know was the start -- I knew almost nothing about him except that he'd written an important article in the history of psychoanalysis, the title of which grabbed me by the psycho-literary lapels: "On the Origins of the 'Influencing Machine' in Schizophrenia."

Can you say something about what drew you to it?

Tausk's essay is a powerful account of what certain schizophrenic patients experience when they talk about being controlled from beyond by forces that emanate from an "influencing machine," which is of course a product of their own imaginations, something they invented that in turn invents them. For all of the differences involved, this is a dynamic I've long known as a writer and certainly as a translator, and the image itself -- of the influencing machine -- took hold of me.

Look, we're always being manipulated by forces outside us -- familial, fraternal, sexual, social, and literary presences that have brought us to a given moment or scene of "translation," or expression. And then we're taken over, as it were, or even possessed by the various presences that enter our lives, for better and worse -- consciously and unconsciously. We're inhabited. These presences live on in us and in some cases become ingrained in us, as habit. And these habits in turn draw other presences to and through us. As poets, as makers, even as readers, whenever we're in the space of the poem, we're constantly in the process of being made and being had -- in all senses of the term, positive and negative. There's something marvelous and exhilarating about this, but also terrifying. One's made greater, clearly, but also runs the risk of ceasing to be one self, which is to say, oneself.

In any case, Tausk's article prompted a short poem called "The Influence Machine." That led to another about the development of electrical influence machines in physics -- electrostatic generators that send a charge through the air and into an object or a person's body. And that was pretty much that until several months later, when I went back to the poem about Tausk's influence machine and realized that there was much more to explore, some larger impulse there at the heart of that poem, one that was both more emotional and much more ambitious. So I started looking into Tausk's own history, as a young man who wanted to be a writer and then as a disciple of Freud and, it seems, a lover of Lou Andreas-Salomé. And I also leaned into my own fascination with the entire mechanism. Again, one thing led to another. In fact, if I'm remembering correctly, I got to the whole thing because I was interested in my mother's paranoia.

As he comes across in the poem, Tausk in many ways embodies that admixture of anxiety and ambition that propel a poem (and poet) to the page, and, well, through life. It seems to me that this poem has a good deal to say about the experience of being a disciple, and of working within a tradition. Is Tausk's agon familiar to you, poetically and otherwise? In other words, apart from the "influencing machine," why him?

Tausk is a strange and not particularly appealing figure to identify with, let alone in public and in poetry. And I'm certainly not Tausk in this poem. But his situation did end up speaking to me in eerie ways. On the one hand, Tausk was engaged in everyone's struggle, especially early on -- to be himself, his own man. To make something of the wreck and even wretch he felt himself to be. But once he joined the Freud circle, in 1909, things got more complicated. It wasn't just that he wanted to be recognized for insights he had in part because he'd so deeply entered into Freud's own thought process. He also wanted approval from on high for having understood the master before the master could understand himself. That is, he wanted credit for a kind of originality that has influence at its heart. That's a powerful and problematic situation -- and one that I know all too well as a translator of more than a few masterful writers, and as a poet who takes great pleasure in the operations and orchestrations of influence. Along the same lines, I was drawn to some of the darker aspects of Tausk's character, those involving his double-edged sense of himself as a son -- literally and figuratively.

So Tausk found himself in that terrible thicket of wanting approval and wanting not to want it -- needing, really, not to want it.

That's part of it -- a backed-up aggression at the heart of his sympathy. In retrospect, I suppose that I was responding to Tausk's battle to come to terms with his unsettling and sometimes clashing sympathetic gifts -- his ability to identify with and even anticipate something like Freud's vanguard thinking and at the same time to give voice to marginal positions and sensibilities, to articulate vulnerability. This is also how the rabbis of the Sayings of the Fathers, a classic Mishnaic text, enter the poem as an alternative and in some ways less agonistic model of tradition. That concatenated -- though still fraught -- view of tradition, originality, and mastery runs not only through the poem, but through the entire book.

Would you say that this actual-imagined "influencing machine" parallels, if that's the right word, certain dynamics in your own development as a poet?

Freud continually points out that he explores extreme psychic conditions because they shed light on normal states of mind, and, yes, you could say that I see my engagement with the entire poetic tradition, the poems I've constructed and the world or worlds I've invented or stumbled on over the past thirty years -- in my own poems and in translations of a more conventional sort -- as a kind of influencing mechanism. Certainly that's one parallel that the poem sets up: "It's a machine, said the doctor, / of a mystical nature --  / reported on at times by patients.../ It makes them see pictures. It produces / thoughts and feelings, and also removes them, / by means of mysterious forces. / It brings about changes within the body -- / sensation and even emission, / a palpable kind of impregnation, / as one becomes a host." In the context of the poem this refers to the invention of Tausk's patient, and, by implication, to the dynamic that develops between Tausk as disciple and Freud as master, or guardian of the tradition and its voices. But for me, yes, it's poetry, and life as a poet. The influence machine, abbreviated, is I.M. -- which is to say, I am. I've become what's come through me.

Your own "guardians" of the tradition are manifold: early on, Objectivist poets were important to you but you've also been immersed in the poetry of medieval Spain and the Kabbalah. And so much else. I wonder whether you sense certain commonalities, kinships, affinities among the poets who have nourished you over the years -- whether personally or poetically.

A great question -- but I'm probably the wrong person to ask! One moves so unconsciously from obsession to obsession. Could I isolate a few elements that at least many of the influences have in common? Off the top of my head? First of all, attention to sound and cadence. Second, an embodiment of wisdom. And third -- how to put this? -- an intensity and surface tensility that are gauged to the occasion of the poem in question and not primarily to a sense of literary decorum.

Wisdom... Not the most popular word these days when it comes to American poetry.

Well, I'm not sure I'd know that either, but in any case, I don't mean something Yoda-like. As a reader, certainly, and also as a writer, I want poetry that bears on life -- that helps me see and hear and feel and think freshly and sharply, all of which requires training and ongoing recalibration. That's part of what poetry is for.

So when I say "wisdom," I'm also thinking of the Hebraic Wisdom Tradition, which is a distinct literary genre the Hebrew Bible inherits and develops from Egyptian and other Near Eastern literatures. The medieval Hebrew poets of Spain develop their own version of it through the materials of the Bible and the Talmud, and through Arabic and Persian and Indian literatures. It's a poetry that treats the situations of living and the small, medium, and sometimes extra-large choices we make every day, and thousands of times each day. "Wisdom" of that sort doesn't belong to any single individual. It's eternal, and so it's both always original and never new, or never original and always new. And it's the writer's job to precipitate it in fresh fashion -- to make what William Carlos Williams called "the necessary translations" -- for one's own situation and cultural moment.

A question about the title of the book and its obvious echoes: Harold Bloom himself, the master of influence, introduces the collection. I can't help asking -- How does that make you feel?

I've been reading Bloom since I was a college student in the late seventies. Even when we disagree, which we often do, he's been -- what else? --  a major influence, especially with his writing on Jewish topics and the sublime. In fact, his work has meant as much to me as that of any living writer. So, of course there's bound to be some anxiety involved in having him introduce the book. But in a much larger sense there's something dream-like about it, which is wholly in keeping with the workings of influence and so much else in the book. I realize that he's a polarizing figure -- he's the first to admit that -- and that having him there also ups the influence ante. But that's what influence in this volume is all about -- embrace rather than anxious evasion, or embrace even of anxious evasion, since one can never escape it. In short, he offered to write the introduction, and I'm deeply honored that he did.

Bloom describes you in that introduction as a poet who is "building an open enclosure around a secularized scripture." The poems of this book are full of, and challenge, distinctions of a certain conceptual or even stylistic sort. We've already touched on self and other, master and disciple, inner worlds and outer worlds. But the poems also have a lot to say about surface and depth, perfection and imperfection, wholeness and brokenness, the ideal and the real. "Self Portrait in Pieces" comes to mind: "'You must learn,' the Japanese teacher of drawing / said to the foreign student who, it seems, was drawn / toward the impressionistic, 'to respect reality.' / Precisely. And so, I write what's just beyond me." I can't help but wonder how, as a so-called "secular" Jew writing what I'd call a deeply devotional poetry, your notion of the sacred converges with this binary-defying view.

Jewish thought, at least as I've absorbed it, is distinguished by its binary tendencies, among other things. For some, that's a problem -- an unattractive and deadening dualism. But the beauty of Jewish thought in action is the way it's always moving between seemingly opposed elements. As though the dialectical tension between them sets up a current that somehow transforms our understanding of the two poles --  so that they're revealed as being complementary rather than mutually exclusive aspects of a single phenomenon.

I had an intuition of all this some thirty-five years ago when I was still a student, but it took me quite a while to accept that this pattern of feeling was deeply ingrained in my own sensibility as well, and even longer to know what to do about it. Once I did, though, that soon led to a much greater sense of ease and play in poetry, including engagement with symmetrical forms that place these polarities in conversation with one another. One thing that I finally realized was that the impulses toward wit on the one hand and a more lyrical and even mystical sort of articulation on the other weren't necessarily at odds in me. They're simply two views of the same landscape. So this new book has poems that treat religious perception from the perspective of, say, intellect and experience, or wry humor, rather than rapture. And by the same token, daily or lower-key elements and tones make their way into what you're calling a more "devotional" approach.

Would you say, then, that the "action" of poetry -- its making -- is something of an expression or practice of your Judaism, analogous maybe, to the way that the commandments often function for more conventionally observant Jews?

I'm a little reluctant to go that far. But, yes. The situations are analogous.

Both aspire to heightened attention, to a revaluation of material and temporal particulars that reflect an always evolving system of relations. The upshot of that is what one scholar I read long ago called "normal mysticism."

So there, I've said it. Sort of.

And having done that, I might as well incriminate myself further and say that the link between poetic practice and Judaism for me opens onto the notion of Levitical sacrifice.

Levitical sacrifice?

Yes, Levitical sacrifice constitutes a concrete and in some ways secret analogue to what I think of as poetry's translational ethos.

What is sacrifice in Leviticus? It involves an isolation of a very particular part to stand for the dynamic whole, and a cutting into something to show how it works as part of that whole. It entails dismemberment for the sake of its opposite -- re-membrance, putting the world together anew, or with renewed vitality. It gives us the visceral, tactile, and choreographed record of the rites of mediation, of a mediacy that will yield the sense and sensory experience of immediacy.

What does this mean for poetry, or for that "translational ethos"?

I've never really tried to articulate it along these lines, but when push comes to shove I suppose that the Levitical mediation and inhabitation we talked about earlier bring us back to the question of sympathy --  whether we're reading and translating a "foreign" text or reading and translating the world.

That's one of the lessons of translation. That it doesn't really help to "empathize" with a poet you're translating or a character in his or her (or your) poems. Everything just becomes a projection of your own personality into or onto the object. That's not doing justice to the work or the world. There's something false about it. I love that in modern Greek -- or so I've read on Wikipedia -- empathia means "hatred" or "spite," and expresses a "bias against" and a "desire to harm," as though the ancient roots of the word were outing its bogusness.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is physical. In physics and physiology, for instance, sympathy involves vibrations in one body or one part of a body causing vibrations or disruptions in another. In poetic terms sympathy means, among other things, attending to the textures and tensions of experience, and of the words-in-a-row we use to account for them. To the shifting of their meaning and sound and what that does to us as we write and read. The aim or intent, or direction of the heart, as the Kabbalists put it in another context altogether, is a disciplined but unpredictable conduction of influence.

So, to go back to the term we seem to be circling around, a translational ethos that leads to a poetics highlights relational densities rather than absolute intensities. It stresses indebtedness and concern with the givenness of things, the encounter with people and objects as we find them, which includes encounters with words as we find them -- their ongoing discovery or framing or "invention" (which is what the classical tradition calls such discovery) as subjects worthy of our heightened attention.

Is it fair to say that this is what's going on in the final poem in the book, "What Is," where you're walking through a city park, as well as the reality of a dear friend's terminal illness -- and, too, through the sefirot, those Kabbalistic conduits for the divine?

I'd like to think so. The sefirot are expressions of divine influence, refracted attributes that reflect or even project human qualities and processes. The poem employs them as a kind of invisible or barely visible armature, as it tries to account for an extraordinary microcosm of an ordinary place. What struck me over a considerable period of time -- several cycles of seasons, during which that close friend became ill (she died last October) -- was something sefirot-like about the patterning of the interlocking paths among those amazing oaks and maples and sycamores, the fixed pattern that absorbed the constant change and randomness. The park's frame and structure seemed not only to channel but to produce what was happening within it, and certainly to heighten my experience of it. As did thinking of that friend. At any rate, this is what I'm trying to capture in those meandering stanzas, and also to release in the reader -- an emblematic sense of the park itself as an open-ended poem, or enclosure, one that registers an intricate and always changing constellation of forces that course through us and the world. Sometimes we notice them, and sometimes we don't. This time I did.