Time's Way of Thinking: An Interview with Alice Fulton

Rather than “make it new,” my credo might be “make it strange.”

This conversation was conducted by Rae Gouirand through email over a long weekend in October 2015.

RG: How are you doing these days? Where is your attention being drawn, in life or on the page?

AF: Things are never perfect, but I’m in a steady state and doing okay. I’m well, and I’m still living with my lifelong companion, Hank De Leo. Those are the aspects of life I value most right now.

I teach fulltime at Cornell, and my attention at the moment is focused on that work and on my students. But over the past four months, I’ve been thinking about horses, the Great Lakes watershed, incipience and celebration. Horses were a surprising distraction. I learned that by working with established rescues I could help save equines (including mules and donkeys) who otherwise would be sent to slaughter in Canada. That effort was consuming — deeply rewarding and stressful. It felt important because I could have a direct effect for the good on the life of an animal. While it isn’t possible to save all the horses bound for slaughter, it is possible to save a few from a brutal, terrifying death. It’s also been inspiring to meet some of the amazing, altruistic people who devote their lives to the heartbreaking chores of animal rescue and rehab.

The Great Lakes watershed entered my consciousness thanks to the marvelous poet, Patricia Clark. Patricia invited me to participate in an interdisciplinary project that pairs poets and artists and asks them to create a work that engages with the Great Lakes watershed. Ithaca, where I live, is part of that watershed, affected by the Great Lakes, though they’re very distant. I’ve been fascinated by interconnectedness since my book Felt. I was lucky enough to be paired with Kim Cridler, an incredibly gifted sculptor whose work holds great resonance for me. Together we imagined a metalwork vessel that includes a poem and resonates with concepts important to my thinking. It’s been exciting to see these ideas realized in a three-dimensional work.

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Over the summer, I also wrote a poem to celebrate the inauguration of Elizabeth Garrett, the first female president of Cornell University. I read at her inauguration, which was such an honor.

Otherwise, when time allows, I’ve been drafting new poems with no set focus or agenda, which is the way I prefer to work. I don’t like to be tied to themes at the start of a new collection. Of course, some obsessions from my latest book, Barely Composed, linger. I’m still writing about gifts and about suffering, but I’m also writing about nonhuman animals. I’ve been thinking about them, feeling for them, for a long time, and I hope to encounter them more deeply in poems.

I lit up when I read one of my favorite lines in the collection: “… Giving it away / doesn’t make a thing a gift.” (27) It doesn’t surprise me to hear you’re still meditating on that aspect. What gifts have you most loved giving and receiving?

Gift giving sometimes is a form of telepathy or character analysis. I’ve given many unimportant gifts, small things that probably missed their mark. I imagine the recipient pointing at a weirdly gone wrong gift—“What even is it? It/me, it/me? You’re kidding!” Sometimes I’ve tried to make gifts speak for me, and this can result in miscommunication. One friend said I gave things I wanted myself, and that was true. I needed to work on that. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been good to give things I didn’t want myself. Still, I needed to more adequately imagine the life and needs of the person I was giving to. I’ve given gifts so wrongheaded that in retrospect they’re almost funny. For years, I gave Japanese yukatas (cotton bathhouse robes)—because I loved those robes myself. I’m pretty sure those gifts were not appreciated. Then I went through a phase of giving orchids to people who didn’t want to take care of them or who lived in dark houses. Recently I gave a family a Morgan horse saved from the kill pen. That was as thrilling for me as it was for them. A wonderful horsewoman offered to give the Morgan a home, and I was able to buy him less than an hour before he would have been tagged for slaughter. Her daughter is training the horse, they send me updates, and it’s been lovely to see them enjoying the horse and see that he now has a good life.

As for what I’ve loved to receive—well, there are the big gifts and the small. A MacArthur Fellowship was an extraordinary gift—it had the potential to be life-changing. It was my mother who told me I’d gotten it. My husband and I were on a cross-country trip, completely disconnected for weeks, and the Foundation couldn’t reach me. A friend who’d seen the announcement in the paper had told my mother, but she had no way to reach me. I finally called her, and she said, “Did you hear the great news?” Being told by your mother that you’d won a MacArthur is kind of unreal, like something from a dream. In retrospect, that was the sweetest aspect. She shared my happiness so deeply. It’s rare to have someone who does.

That was a singular thing, a gift that honored my work, but most of my thinking about presents centers on the small, material objects we exchange as a form of silent communication. I’m absurdly comforted by material objects. It has nothing to do with commodity value and everything to do with time, endurance, and love. I can look around any room in our house and see objects that friends, students, family members have given, and seeing these things brings the giver vividly to mind. It isn’t sentimental, it’s deeper than that. I’m typing this is in my “email study,” and behind me are two puppets from India, a gift from one of my oldest friends. She also gave us a comforter that we use a lot. I don’t think she realizes that we’ve enjoyed it so much. Who knows, maybe some people are liking what I’ve given without me knowing. The giver can’t control the gift. Words, language, can fall so far short, and the objects we exchange imply and resonate without resorting to words. That’s part of their power for me.

“… Giving it away / doesn’t make a thing a gift.” Those lines are from “Malus Domestica,” a poem that’s partly about waterboarding, and the lines refer to confessions extracted through torture. A gift given under duress isn’t a gift. Gifts also fail if they’re chosen in an offhand, thoughtless manner; if they’re a leftover, something the giver didn’t want herself; or if they’re in any sense stingy. A true gift conveys affection, trust, and esteem. It can say, “I know you, and I thought you’d like this,” or, “I love this, and I wanted you to have this because I love you.”

Whenever I read your poems I always think between you and A.R. Ammons, especially between the ways each of your poems adapted punctuation for the space of the poem. What do you think punctuation is?

Punctuation marks are transparent: we ignore their presence on the page and unthinkingly obey their commands. I don’t quite trust transparency of surface, and I’m interested in the ways that poetry can query or counter it. I also empathize with the background of any construct: in human terms, this could be the disenfranchised or silenced. Thinking along these lines, over twenty years ago, I devised a punctuation mark that would enter the foreground, enacting a reversal of visual field while remaining silent, unspoken. In addition to having a presence on the page, I wanted the mark to have a content, albeit an ambiguous one. And I hoped it might offer new syntactical possibilities. That’s pretty much how the double equal or bride sign == came to be.

The poets who showed me the way were Emily Dickinson through her use of the dash, and as you noted, A.R. Ammons, who made the colon an important part of his vocabulary.

Would you talk about the moment in the collection that represents for you the steepest or most surprising thing you learned (or stumbled into) over in the course of developing Barely Composed? Can you describe for me the moment in which you realized the title for the collection?

Breakthroughs are so interesting, but after the fact it’s sometimes hard to isolate them from the whole. Some poems in Barely Composed were written in a new way for me. In the past, I often worked in a linear fashion, writing the poem from beginning to end, polishing a line or a sentence, before I wrote farther ahead. With this book, the process at times seemed looser, messier—though in the end, I don’t think the poems retained too much of that messiness. I was writing in a way that seemed quite splat! to me, writing fragments, bits of language, and developing the pages slowly.

I’ve long been interested in the pitfalls and possibilities of rhetoric. It’s an aspect of language that profoundly affects a poem’s tone, yet it’s seldom mentioned when we talk about poetics, or at least it isn’t considered in depth. Certain rhetorical constructions seem overused in poetry, and so they tend to annoy me: the “as if” construction; sentences that begin, “I think of…” as a means of introducing a turn of content; rhetorical questions that sound arch or precious; dry, distancing syntactical hinges, such as, “that is to say,” “which is to say.”

Rather than “make it new,” my credo might be “make it strange.” Rhetoric can introduce a quality of estrangement, and I worked with this in several poems. I felt a sense of discovery when writing “Personal Reactor” and “Active Night,” especially. I was discovering new ways with syntax, vanished locutions, slippages, misappropriated quotation, and direct address. “Personal Reactor” draws upon 18th century rhetoric and neologism, like these lines describing a nuclear reactor as “…Monstrous fine. / an omniofficious l’awful / thermos thing.” It also plays with direct address—“My Astonishment,” “My Solitude.” “Active Night” includes words from languages other than English, but the words aren’t used in a straightforward way. I sometimes misuse them for their homophonic properties. There’s no need to look them up because the “sounds like” approach, so dangerous for translation, is the right approach, in this case. I also created eccentric terms using foreign languages, neologisms with estranging yet available connotations.

Barely Composed was a working title, and I considered many others along the way. Finding a title for the collection was a struggle, and there was no one moment when I felt I’d found the best one. For me, this title describes a discomposure of both content and language. The sensibilities of the poems often are uneasy, distraught, fragmented, suffering. The content speaks to these states, and the language, while elegantly formed and modulated, is torqued and weirded by trauma. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” Dickinson was so right. To my mind, Barely Composed refers to the disarticulation and upheaval that arises from suffering and its effect on language. Not all poems in the book fit this description, but in many cases, the language is somewhat eccentric or warped by compression; the syntax, vocabulary, rhetoric, estranged from the norm, as if the surface had been flayed and reconstituted. At times, too, there’s an obsessively “composed” quality, some severe constraints. These aspects arose from my own state during the years when I was writing the book.

Speaking of rhetorical constructions: I have to admit that the poem I felt most undone by on first read of this collection (and then on subsequent readings too) is “Peroral.” You use the word “like” nearly half a dozen times over the course of those 14 lines, and in the end the poem seems to wield that loose style of approximation as a kind of weapon—it sharpens an impossible question that stretches from the opening (‘It’s like a prison that makes itself at home in you, / like so not worth it, so not mattering…’) to closing (‘This knot of not mattering, isn’t it like enough?’).

That is one angry poem! The word “like” is used sardonically, in parody of the placeholder, the hesitation use we hear so much. But “like” morphs throughout. By the end, “like” is suggesting a comparison, and you’re so right that the word has become a weapon. As I worked on the manuscript that became Barely Composed, I had a vague notion of writing poems that would directly respond to the audience at readings. Over the years, I’d attended many poetry readings at universities where students abruptly and noisily left in the middle of a poem. All too often they made no effort to leave quietly, between poems, etc. I guess most poets have had this experience. “Peroral” started with this trivial catalyst and became something different as I worked on it.

I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s sonnets, and number 87 is one I know pretty well: individual lines from it go through my head at times. When I thought of people walking out on readings, the first line of sonnet 87 seemed the right thing to say: “Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing…” For some mad, obsessive reason, I decided to limit the poem’s vocabulary to the words used in Shakespeare’s sonnet. That turned out to be a difficult formal task. I soon realized that any poem built only of those words would be nothing but a weak version of sonnet 87. But breaking the words and recombining their parts enlarged the possibilities, as did the use of homonyms and puns. The decomposition/composition process was very slow. I must have worked on the poem for weeks. It wasn’t written freely, in a sketchy way. It was very tightly constrained, “like a prison that makes itself at home in you.” One connotation of “peroral” that resonated was “a dose of medicine given by mouth.” By the end, it had developed into something that sounds like a bitter break-up poem. That’s the way I think it will be read.

Your credo about making it strange makes me think about the casting of spells, and the way that poems sometimes work to render language and its structures more slippery or open. Another poem that wouldn’t let me look away from it is “Black Salve,” which opens “The parts are more articulate than the whole, / chattier, if abject…” and eventually routes to the line “All duration ends / in a devouring.” One of the qualities I appreciated most throughout this collection was the degree to which you render such declarative statements into sites of wonder and investigation for the reader—the ways you multiply language’s mystery and promise, the ways you spin it, so to speak, give these kinds of assessments and evaluations and statements something like an investigative quality. It’s almost like you’ve captured clarity and dizziness simultaneously—it’s one of your impossible gifts as a poet. I’m curious about how you work that tension from the inside.

Thanks for that brilliantly generous reading, Rae. I start with language, but I also want to write about whatever seems most pressing to me. What is “Black Salve?” The night and duration. In a sense this poem is about something that is barely composed, something, perhaps a self or mind, that has been taken apart, dismantled. A shattered self that might be noisier, “more articulate,” than an integral, happy self. The poem, for me, is about the process of thinking, especially the kind of thinking that erupts in the dead of night, as one lies awake fretting, obsessively taking things apart to try to understand. It’s also a meditation (though that seems too calm a word) on time, which is so inexorable and therefore so frightening.

If imagism is “the grammar school of poetry,” abstraction might be the high school. I mention this because the statement you quote—”All duration ends / in a devouring.”—relies on abstractions. Maybe they play a part in creating a vertiginous clarity because they reduce the largest concepts to a single word. That degree of compression can be dizzying, just as the maximalism of the sublime is dizzying.

There’s an erasure (or, more accurately, a blackout) poem, “Reckoning Frame,” near the center of the book, and that erasing or blacking out comes back at the close of the final poem. I’m hoping you could talk about how erasures further the project of the poem.

I think of “Reckoning Frame” as a redacted document rather than a text with erasures. One of the book’s subjects, especially in the section that ends with this poem, is censorship and various forms of silencing: there are allusions to Philomel who had her tongue cut out by her rapist, so she couldn’t testify against him; there’s self-censoring; there are versions of horror so creepily euphemistic that they become a horror themselves; there’s the inarticulateness of trying to speak in a language other than your native tongue; the plight of animals who cannot speak their suffering; the silence of the dead who sometimes continue to speak. There’s the enforced silencing of the populace under dictatorships, and the enforced utterance of torture, a testimony so warped and fragmented by duress that it becomes a form of silence. “Reckoning Frame” quotes other poem lines in the section with portions blacked out. Somehow, to me, the fragments that remained seemed “more articulate than the whole,” though the poem is barely composed, barely cohesive.

“When there’s a story you cannot speak / you weave.” (24) What stories have proved most important to you in this life?

Those lines are from “Forcible Touching,” a poem that mentions Philomel. It’s a longish poem, and several stories flicker through it, in a haunted, phantasmagoric fashion. Since Philomel couldn’t speak, she wove her story into a tapestry and sent it to her sister. For me, “Forcible Touching” was a way of weaving together several stories that I couldn’t speak or tell directly. I’m unable to tell the most important “stories” in my life. They’re too strange or too traumatic, hideous, grim, sad, complex. Airing such things would not serve a purpose, but they can be woven into art, which has its own purpose.

The poem “Mahamudra Elegy” closes on the line “Every solid is a clock.” Can you tell me how you came to that line?

I was reading about Buddhism, at times, while writing this book. I’m not a Buddhist; in fact, I have no religion, but Buddhist concepts were important to some of the poems. “Mahamudra Elegy” is a meditation on materiality and time. I’ve been obsessed with time for years, trying to understand it, an impossible task, really. Physics has some interesting things to say about time, while Buddhism is concerned with emptiness and being. Mahamudra is the force that seals or locks material things within their intrinsic shapes. Writing the poem, I imagined fire as a kind of narcissistic force that assumed everything wanted to be fire. That’s fire’s way of thinking, why it’s so contagious. And it occurred to me that time’s erosive effect on material things was time’s way of thinking, its thought process, in so far as it can be said to have one. Time has its way with all embodied things; they have no choice: “Time thinks through its helpless locks…” I wanted to give examples of objects through which time thinks. I chose ambergris, which originates in a mammal’s body, emerges from the sea, and sometimes contains ancient inclusions—such as a sailor’s buttons. And I chose the mud wasp “buzzing like a mini vac.” Insects scare me because they’re so mechanistic and unthinking. The mud wasp articulates a tiny emptiness, the sound of the vacuum in small. Ruminations like these might have led me to the line you quote. Basically, I was thinking of how materiality bears witness to temporality.

Is there a question you wish someone would ask you that you’ve never been asked?

I used to wish that someone would ask how are you and really be interested in the answer. Then you asked that question at the start of this interview, and I realized it would take many pages, probably an entire book, to respond adequately. Still, it’s a question I’ve been waiting to hear for a long time. So thank you.


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