It is a kind of politics that allows us to live with this reality—the fact that everything, including our bodies, eventually fails, though we know not when.
Welcome to CalJoPo! Your first book of poetry, The Politics, was published early in 2011. It is a surprising collection of intellectual but playful poems that mix earnest statements and observations about the human condition with a view of the contemporary world that vacillates between ironic and deadly serious. It’s refreshing to read a poet who is willing to make us smile (“a semi-colon looks like a comma / with a very small idea” is one of my favorite, playful moments) and at the same time make us think about big issues:
. . . . Because of the flaming shit
on the evening doorstep and the fires of Troy still visible
in our song, because the television convinced us that anything
could be a solution, we reckoned what it would take
to tape the tarmac back together and get the hell out of here.
(“The Elevator in Times of Fire”)
Can you talk a little about the mix of the humorous with the serious in your work?
I’m gratified that you find some of the book funny. Funny is hard. As a poet (as well as when I’m not a poet) I can be serious pretty much any time it occurs to me to be. I suspect that that’s true of most of us; someone who can’t will him or herself into seriousness is not a reliable person, more or less by definition. But funny is a lot harder for me to force myself into. You know that formula for comedy that Alan Alda lays out in Crimes and Misdemeanors? “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.” It’s ridiculous, but there’s some truth to it nonetheless.
This is, to my mind, one of the principal functions of the lyric poem as a language technology: it creates a space in which past, present, and future appear as the unity that they in fact are.
Tragedy and comedy are, of course, intimately bound. That’s hardly a revelatory claim, though I find it interesting that this intimacy makes us uncomfortable enough that we have had to devise generic rubrics—tragicomedy, dark comedy, “problem play”—in order to domesticate it. In one of my last sessions with an excellent therapist—she was, no joke, exceptionally good at talking me through my fears of abandonment, and then she moved away—I asked her why it is that we always talk about what makes me sad, not so much about what makes me laugh. Laughter is no less visceral, no less meaningful. It’s about as powerful and spontaneous a response to meaning as we may ever want to have. Reaching for, sometimes grasping for, some amusing angle has always been my immediate response to an unhappy circumstance. As you can imagine, there are times when this has come out badly.
But there’s also a risk in bemusement that I find attractive, the risk that comes in saying something that is perhaps funny, perhaps horrifying or patently offensive, and maybe even both at the same time. For me, in my work, it is very important—even a kind of religious imperative, though one from which I, a sinner, fall often enough—that the poem bear a definite relation to the reality to which it refers, and so most of the poems in The Politics consist of factual statements. I think that a semicolon does, in fact, look “like a comma / with a very small idea.” If I find that funny and, truth be told, sad, it’s really because I find the fact of it funny and sad.
You know, it strikes me that poets don’t mention therapy very often in interviews! And yet so many poets are in therapy and have this time set aside every week or two to analyze their thoughts and behaviors with professional help. Do you feel that you’ve learned anything or gained any new perspective in therapy that has influenced your work as a poet?
It’s not just poets! Although writers do tend to be an anxious, introspective lot, people of all stripes see therapists or receive some form of mental health treatment. And yet the recent boom in public discourse about mental health, fueled in part by the fifteen or so years that we’ve had the television telling us what to tell our doctors to tell us we need prescribed, has not fully eroded the shame of mental health care, the sense that it’s a private or family matter, not to be discussed publicly except as an “issue.”
The poet’s work, like the plumber’s, will fail sooner or later.
I’m not a very private person. I have nothing against people protecting their own privacy in principle, but for my part it usually makes little sense. Here we are having a conversation centered largely on me, or at least on my book, which is also largely about me. In this interview, in the book, and in any number of other things I have written, I make my engagements with the world an occasion for ongoing discourse. To then elide the fact of my decade-plus in and out of therapy, which is itself a way of conditioning those engagements, strikes me as counter-intuitive, if not altogether disingenuous.
In this we already have a partial answer to the question of whether my work as a poet has been influenced by the therapeutic process. But this is an extremely tricky topic. Because psychotherapy, at least in my experience, is much more about helping me know my mental safeguards viscerally instead of simply identifying them as critical specimens. That is, if I can say that I have learned one thing from regular visits to my therapist, it’s that the mind’s defense mechanisms have more redundancies than the life-support systems on the space shuttle. And one of the most pernicious of these is the delusion that figuring something out, deconstructing it thoroughly with all of the critical resources at one’s disposal, is equivalent to a cure: it is not. There is no cure. There is only the endless peeling away of layers and with it the recognition of both the previously invisible connections (between my memories and my behaviors, my desires and my friendships, my achievements and my ambitions) and the veils that had concealed them. And this is the same mind that is writing the poems and, in a different sphere of activity, making similar demands on itself to find a clear, if fundamentally impossible, path through self-delusion.
Persona poems (such as “Seneca on Suicide” and “Valerius Maximus on Prodigies”) make up the majority of The Politics. You don’t have any contemporary speakers in your persona poems, or even post-classical speakers, yet your poems do address the contemporary world. This creates some of the most surprising and oddest moments in the book. For example, Seneca says, “part of me still wants to meet this Sara Lee / what nobody does it like,” and elsewhere he says, “His coffee milk is the official drink of Rhode Island. / Yes, an official drink, that’s what we’re capable of.” What compelled you to address the contemporary world in the voices of those who have been dead for thousands of years?
That’s a good question. At the end of the book, I offer a note to the effect that some of the poems “respond to the tone or style of thought of writers long dead,” and this still strikes me as an accurate characterization of what’s going on here. These are not persona poems in my understanding of the term, since they do not purport to be written from the point of view of a fully-conceived character or heteronym. Rather, I turned in this direction out of a certain contrariness.
In the years before I wrote these poems I found myself straining to write a very different kind of poem, one that would satisfy the demands of friends and colleagues whose work and critical faculties I respect a great deal and who repeatedly told me that they wanted to see me writing in ways that were more forthcoming with my emotional investments and less ready to “intellectualize” them. The result was a book’s worth of poems that never coalesced into a book. I think of them as a kind of exercise book, a series of studies, most of which have appeared in magazines, though none is included in The Politics.
Once, many years ago, I asked Anne Carson how she separated her work as a scholar from her work as a poet. “I don’t,” she said, and that was it.
Then I decided to try writing poems that exaggerate those aspects of my work that I had so often been asked to tone down. If my earlier poems had been talky, the new ones would be densely argumentative. I wanted to see whether I could animate my own turns of mind in a way that amplified, rather than diminished, the emotional energies through which I experience them. That’s where the dead came in. Seneca’s discipline bordering on severity; Philo’s tendency to turn back against his own propositions, as if in dialogue with himself; Maimonides’ profound ability to discover a new solution to a problem even as he thought he was explaining a solution already achieved—these voices came to mind as I was working on the poems because theirs were among the voices in which the poems’ ideas expressed themselves to me with the greatest clarity. But it’s still me doing the talking. There are only a couple instances of borrowed language, also noted in the back of the book.
This ventriloquism brings the poems’ anachronistic flavor into greater relief, certainly, because so many of the voices are ancient. But I also think that poems are inherently anachronistic. Not because poetry is an inherently outmoded or dead genre, which is an argument that I’ve heard much more often than I’ve heard it made well, but because poems map the movements of thought against the rhythms of language, a mechanism that is anachronism par excellence. Poems box images, ideas, and experiences into a linguistic structure that typically arrives after image, idea, or experience, but that, when the structure is working at its best, allows the reader to arrive at the same image, idea, or experience through language as if he or she has arrived there without language. When a poem triggers in me an experience of laughter or loss, even if the poem happens to be structured around acrobatic linguistic effects, the experience is not of laughing at or losing language. Rather, it is a resonance between the experience orchestrated in the poem and my own memory of experience, so that what I am experiencing now, as I am reading the poem, hybridizes the poet’s experience and my own. That fusion is anachronistic insofar as the time of writing and the time of reading are joined together without ever being the same. In this sense, all literature consists of letters from the dead, even when the author is still living. Even, it so happens, when we are the authors ourselves.
I’m interested in what you just said about taking a turn and writing against the wishes or suggestions of friends and colleagues. This is a major part of the writing life for all poets, I think—negotiating between advice from those we respect and our own instincts or predilections. In your more recent work, are you staying the course and, as you say, amplifying the intellectual and argumentative aspects of your work, or are you following a new path?
My next book looks very different from The Politics, if only because the poems open a wider communicative circuit. It’s still a closed circuit, as it were. You pointed out in your review—quite astutely, I think—that “while we have excellent access to the brain of each speaker, the rest of the body—with its sensuous connection to the world through smell, taste, and touch—is almost entirely ignored.” There is perhaps a little more body in the next book, but it’s more thinking about the body, which is not the same thing. The new poems are all written with absent friends and loved ones in mind, almost like the imaginary dialogues I have with them in my head as I’m brushing my teeth or riding my bike to work. Thus they have a quasi-epistolary quality, one that, in its ambition toward discourse—What are such interior monologues but a way of dramatizing the wish for dialogue?—is necessarily more discursive than the poems in The Politics. But I’d be fooling myself if I were to claim that these poems are themselves actual dialogues and not determined solely by my own intellectual predilections.
The first poem in The Politics begins, “Nothing ever comes true,” and your speakers frequently address the past, present, and future (what they are becoming, what they have been forced to become, or what they became that they didn’t expect). For example, Seneca says, “I never expected to be / the kind of man who mourns his friends”; Maimonides says, “the mice on the glue board scream / as though help is on the way. And who knows?”; and in “Museum of Contemporary Zoology,” the speaker overhears a little girl saying, “. . . Look, it’s an airplane. Where is it taking everybody?” Why is the tension between past, present, and future—and doubt about the future—such an integral part of your work?
Certainty about the future, the stuff of religious zealots and TV pundits, is one of our age’s most pervasive forms of charlatanism. It is also hard for me to see how we could live without it. Why would you brush your teeth in the evening without some reasonable certainty that those same teeth will still be there in the morning? Sooner or later you’re going to wake up to discover that one of those teeth hurts like hell and has to be capped or pulled or whatever it is that people do.
Revision, for me, is largely a process of stripping away the bullshit that seeps in to satisfy my desire to be smart or beautiful, to feel good about myself, or to feel that I’ve “finished” something.
It is a kind of politics that allows us to live with this reality—the fact that everything, including our bodies, eventually fails, though we know not when. We negotiate with ourselves. For example, we tell ourselves that our teeth will be fine in the morning, and then we reconcile ourselves to the failure of our previous knowledge when we wake up to pain. Most of the time, we do this work unconsciously, but big events—or mistakes—make it visible. “What was I thinking?” I think to myself often enough. “What new hell is this? Where’s all this going?” Past, present, and future are not given as such. They’re arranged. Sure, we are all moving through a shared moment, but one way for us to define the present is precisely as a node where the information contained in my experience can be shared with or cross into the information contained in yours. Past and future, on the other hand, cannot be shared, since we each carry our own past (as memory) and future (as expectation).
Whenever I talk like this I feel a need to say—really, to emphasize—that I am not somehow beyond my own illusions of past and future. It’s not just that I sympathize with the need to accept memory, whether personal or cultural, as ready-made, a sort of donnée for my life as text, as that which renders my life as something legible to me. No. I cannot live without making sense of the moment I am now living, and I cannot manufacture that sense without propping it up—molding it, as it were—with a past and future whose very stability derives from the illusion that it is held in common among all of us and that it merely looks different from different points of view. I constantly have to remind myself that we do not share a past or a future except as narrative, and then only insofar as we succeed in reconciling the differences—that which makes my past mine, your past yours—into some common thread, and only when there is some incentive to do so.
To return to the question, then, the tension between past, present, and future is so vital for me because it is false. Past and future do not exist as such, and yet I am constantly, involuntarily imagining them into existence in order for my present to make sense, in order to tolerate being. This is a real problem for me, one that I experience viscerally, with tremendous unease: acknowledging that past and future are illusions does not relieve me of the need to indulge them. And this is, to my mind, one of the principal functions of the lyric poem as a language technology: it creates a space in which past, present, and future appear as the unity that they in fact are.
(In this I think that Nietzsche and Rilke are correct, and with them Heidegger and Agamben, if we assume, as I do, that Heidegger overstates his departure from Nietzsche and Rilke and that Agamben amplifies those differences further. The differences are real, mind you, but do not alter the underlying premise that fantasies of past and future distract us from an immersive experience of the world as it actually is.)
Scholar Charles Altieri writes that the most compelling poets of the current generation are not merely addressing the present, but looking to the future. This, he says, is in contrast to the previous generation’s strongest poets, who focused primarily on themselves and their own experiences of the present world. Do you believe, as Altieri does, that there is something refreshing, or even important, about books of poetry that grapple with our future as well as our past and present?
I do believe that what comes next is as much the poet’s business as it is anyone else’s. But I am reluctant to claim for the poet some vague higher historical responsibility, by which I mean “responsiveness” as much as obligation. A plumber is just as responsible to the future: the pipe he installs today should not leak tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. But the poet’s work, like the plumber’s, will fail sooner or later. It might be buried under rubble and forgotten, or it might be used as a blunt instrument—take, for example, the Nazis’ reinvention of Nietzsche. (I’ll leave comparable examples involving pipes to the imagination.) More than likely, the work will simply disintegrate or become obsolete; it will no longer serve the needs of the living, however the living define them.
While Charles Altieri’s critiques of Modernism are apt, I’m generally skeptical regarding my own ability to define a poem’s (let alone a poet’s) orientation toward the future beyond merely cataloguing a subject. If what we make resonates across time, that has a lot more to do with the needs of the receiver than with the strength of the transmission. Vladimir Mayakovsky is right, I think, when he suggests that poetry is tendentious, that it arises out of the identification of a problem that the poem may help correct, what Albert Camus, writing about fiction a generation later, would call “the rectification of the actual world.” But it does not fall to us to determine how the things we make will be used (or ignored) by those who come after us, and if you accept this basic premise you must also accept its corollary, that my orientation toward the future is in fact my orientation toward a construct that allows me to contextualize, to make meaning of, my present. Yes, the opening lines of The Politics are oriented toward an uncertain future, but they are also written in the present tense.
Your answers to these last two questions definitely indicate your fluency as a scholar. Do you find that when you write or revise—especially in revising a collection for publication—you end up thinking about what a scholar might say about your work (what philosophies or theories they might apply to it)? If so, does it have an impact on what changes you make in revision?
This sort of takes me back to the question about therapy. The most honest answer is that I cannot possibly represent to myself a complete inventory of the effects of any one of my activities on any of my other activities. And when I say “activity,” I mean all of it, intentional and unintentional, all of the mental and biological processes, social interactions, and ecological exchanges that my organism takes part in. The very notion of “activity” does not lend itself to easy inventory. Of course, I would love to be able to delineate where one activity ends and the other begins, and in the past I had convinced myself that I could. But I was wrong.
Once, many years ago, I asked Anne Carson how she separated her work as a scholar from her work as a poet. “I don’t,” she said, and that was it. I recall being disappointed, even irritated, by her characteristically laconic response. But of course she was correct. Not, as I initially came to believe, because I am the same person who does this and that, and there’s no point in denying it. Rather, I can’t claim to be the Poet Paloff here and the Scholar Paloff there because to do so would be to claim a totalizing self-knowledge that I simply do not have.
What I do have, what I bring to my work in any genre, is a simple question: Does this representation strive to be true to the realities represented therein? There are plenty of epistemological knots even in the question—What is representation? truth? reality?—but the ambition is sincere. Revision, for me, is largely a process of stripping away the bullshit that seeps in to satisfy my desire to be smart or beautiful, to feel good about myself, or to feel that I’ve “finished” something. Poems, like works of criticism or critical theory, make me feel a great many things, but when they make me feel good about myself I have to wonder why this creep is flattering me.
I have to admit, though, that I do sometimes find myself delighting in a particular verbal gesture that will pose a special problem to someone translating it into another language I know well. I don’t revise with the specific intention of paying back those I’ve translated for all the sleepless nights, but every once in a while I’ll be revising something, and it will occur to me that so-and-so would have a terrible time coming up with a solution for a given rhythm or phrase. Perhaps this is how translators stick it to their friends.
You speak in a number of voices in The Politics—Maimonides, Philo, Xenophon, Valerius Maximus—but Seneca the Younger commands the most poems by far, with an entire section devoted to his voice. As you pointed out earlier, it is the “tone or style of thought” of the writing of these men that you respond to in your poems. What is it about Seneca’s style of thought that compelled you to use his voice more than the others?
Seneca can be sharp, witty, warm, and austere—stoical, one might say—all at the same time. His thinking about the world is not free from assumed truths or self-interest—he was, like most of the voices in this book, a political creature in the literal sense, at least part-time—and while he does not overcome them—no one does—he strives to recognize them, to lay them bare. I admire that. It opens up the potential for hypocrisy, of course, but hypocrisy is a necessary consequence of articulating any ideal that exceeds what is within our power. The opposite of hypocrisy is, perhaps, complacency, or else the self-delusion that one’s ideal has already been attained. In this way, Seneca reminds me of Samuel L. Jackson’s speech at the end of Pulp Fiction, when he’s finally pondering the hodgepodge Biblical passage he likes to recite before killing someone:
See, now I’m thinking, maybe it means you’re the evil man, and I’m the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is, you’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.
You can’t try to be the shepherd without first acknowledging that you’re the tyranny of evil men. Seneca, at least in my reading, is a master of that kind of sober self-regard.
Your work is fragmentary in a way that has been common since the High Moderns and has become even more popular during the post-structuralist period. But your work differs from many other contemporary poets who, like you, operate on a highly intellectual level: your form provides a relatively smooth reading experience in a way that defies the leaps in thought and utterance that occur in your content. Unlike poets like Graham or Powell, you rarely draw attention to the fragmentation by way of punctuation, dramatic line breaks, gaps, or white space. In form, your work is more like that of High Moderns like Eliot, Stevens, or Stein, who presented their surprising content with a minimum of formal acrobatics (at least acrobatics that draw immediate visual attention to themselves). Can you speak a little about why you are drawn to a form that does not compete with your content for attention?
I kind of wish we could revisit this question after my next book, which, as I mentioned, has a very different visual architecture, one that eschews most punctuation. In The Politics, though, I was working in sentences that maintain, as my rabbi once advised me to do, “a non-anxious presence,” and for that I needed the tools that American orthography generously provides. They effectively orchestrate the line and lock down the tone. You might still read the line ironically or earnestly; there’s still plenty of interpretive potential in a fully-punctuated sentence. Yet there’s a huge rhetorical distance between an exclamation and a question, and punctuation helps keep that distance intact.
Are there leaps in these poems? Maybe so. But only because I tend to revise out the connective tissue between one utterance and the next, to strip each poem down, if not to a minimalist verbal core, then to an arrangement of sound and image that invites the reader to insert him- or herself into the gaps. Poetry is, after all, a highly participatory genre.
Well, we look forward to reading your next book and following your journey as a writer! And speaking of following emerging writers, one last question: as poetry editor of Boston Review, you must read and publish work by many up-and-coming poets who deserve a broader audience. Can you name one or two of these poets who you would recommend to our readers?
Oh boy. Discovering new work and engaging with it in a way that connects it to broader discussions is what it’s all about. Consistently, one of my very favorite sections of Boston Review is the Poet’s Sampler, where an established poet introduces us to the work of someone who has not yet published a book. If I could list everyone whose work I first came to enjoy through Boston Review, this interview would be at least twice as long.
To name two, though… We published Seth Abramson’s poem “The Ark Of” way back in 2006, and it still sticks with me. And Joanna Klink edited a Sampler of poems by Youna Kwak in 2008 that I also return to. [Editor's note: you can read Kwak's sampler here at bostonreview.net]. But I return to a lot of what we publish. Our archives are available to everyone through our website, and I sink into them often.
More Benjamin Paloff
Read CalJoPo’s review of Paloff’s The Politics.
Read Paloff’s “Seneca on the Lesson to be Learned from the Burning of Lyon” at Poetry Daily.
Purchase Paloff at Amazon.com.
Visit Paloff’s NEA Writers’ Corner page.
Read an interview with Paloff about his work translating Polish literature at polishwriting.net.