Saturday, 25 April 2009

Ivan Klíma on Vítĕzslav Nezval

Vítĕzslav Nezval: A remarkable member of the Avant-garde

Foreword to Vítĕzslav Nezval: Prague with Fingers of Rain, translated by Ewald Osers (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)

Vítĕzslav Nezval, one of the greatest (but also most controversial) Czech poets, lived in a country whose history was rich in reversals and paradoxical changes, but also a country where poetry enjoyed extraordinary interest. Not only monthlies, but even the most serious Czech daily paper would carry a poem on their title pages. Some of the poets (even some rather bad ones) were considered national bards and every new collection they published became a social event. This was of course due to historical circumstances - it was the poets who became the main symbol of the national revival and the resurrection of the Czech language, and thus the birth of the modern Czech nation. The poetry of the nineteenth century was conservative and often didactic; one of its aims, repeatedly reiterated, was to prove that the Czech language was capable of expressing the most complex situations and that it was possible to translate into it the greatest works of world literature. Not until the end of the century did poetry begin to diversify and to reach artistic standards comparable to the poetry of the rest of Europe.

Almost symbolically, Nezval was born at the turn of the century - in the spring of 1900. He belonged to the exceptionally strong generation of poets that included the future laureate of the Nobel Prize Jaroslav Seifert (one year younger than Nezval) and the gifted Jiří Wolker (who, however, died before he was able to develop his talent to the hights of his generational coevals). This generation also included the outstanding prose writer Vladislav Vančura (who was just under ten years older), as well as Karel Čapek, who was already internationally famous as a prose writer and playwright at a time when Nezval published his first poetry. Even though Karel Čapek never wrote poetry, he influenced the language of a whole generation by his superbly translated anthology of modern French poetry.

That generation was, while still young, marked by three historical upheavals - the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, followed by attempted revolutions in Europe, and finally by the emergence of an independent Czechoslovak Republic.

Nezval succeeded during the war in avoiding military service (though he lost several friends in the war); what influenced him much more at the time was the Bolshevik Revolution. Like most young poets he sympathised with it, he believed that socialism would do away with poverty and enable the socially weaker ones to lead a dignified life. In his first, youthfully naive (but formally astonishingly ripe and unconventional), poems we still encounter a social note or the belief that an Uprising is impending.

Look into each other's eyes
Into the hearts
No one above you
All in a circle
Holding hands
All of you
Each has his own mother country
In your mother tongue
Thunder forth
All of you
- Already we know
This moment a world will rise from its swoon -
It's breathing

At twenty-four he joined the Communist Party, but it seems that he was fascinated not so much by Lenin's utopian (and bloody) vision as by the Russian modern movement, which in the first years after the Revolution was for many artists identical with the idea of a poetry liberated from all constraints and bourgeois prejudices. Years later Nezval reminisced: ‘To us the Soviet Union was an untouchable country ... There, poetry had freed itself from trite symbolism, academism and tedious realistic miniature. We came to know the grand poetry of Mayakovskiy and his friends ... Even though we had been students on Montmartre and Montparnasse, none of us could truly regard himself as a "westerner", because the honest avant-garde in the West understood itself with the honest Soviet avant-garde...’

Although he declared himself for the Communist movement and also for the movement of revolutionary avant-garde artists in Czechoslovakia that called itself "Devĕtsil", a group aiming at what they called "proletarian art", Communist ideas gradually diksappeared from Nezval's work. For a revolutionary he lacked one basic ability - the ability to hate and to write gloomily about a world that had not yet been "cleansed" by the proletarian revolution. Nezval was the very opposite - an essential optimist, a hedonist who enjoyed whatever life had in store for him. In a letter to a friend he admits: ‘Teige, Vančura and a few of his friends have realised that we shall not be redeemed by the art of social hope, that the simple people are not asking social experience from us, and that proletarian art can be practised without official sentimentality...above all, that we do not lack non-militancy or the courage to take off and fly cheerfully.’

One might say that an original and effective rhyme (never mind an evening in the company of friends or a pretty girl) was more important to Nezval than any revolutionary slogan.

Nezval was one of those exceptional creative persons for whom everything they encounter turns into poetry. The lightness of his verses is stunning (and at times dangerous to the poet himself: of his eighty-five titles by no means every one is superb). His ability to find countless metaphors for even the most everyday things was downright extraordinary: his verses, whether free or rhymed, had a magical power of insinuating themselves into the reader's ear and engraving themselves indelibly in his memory. I recall how enchanted I was by the refrain in one of his best poems, Edison:

But there was something beautiful to catch my breath
Courage and pleasure over life and death

I have mentioned Čapek's anthology of translations from modern French poetry. It was, above all, his congenial translation of Apollinaire's Zones that influenced Nezval's first collections. He himself characterised his beginnings as follows: ‘More than anything did we break and cut down forms, more than anything did we renounce forms, for repeated sentiments no longer captivated us; we raised the banner of an art that was able to utter everything for which the language of form had remained mute. I could now permit myself to make any theme the subject of my poetic interest and there was no danger that I would "develop" it the way the older poetry did. As when we water our garden with a watering can, a theme would become for me the subject of centrifugal rays.’

Later, on his frequent visits to Paris, he made the acqaintance of André Breton and became a passionate follower of surrealism.

That period (from which his poems about Prague date) may be regarded as the peak period of his creativity. Nezval had in him that which characterises a genius - the need forever to seek and find something new, a need further enhanced by the atmosphere of his day, which regarded novelty, freshness and rebellion against any tradition as its highest value, a period when artists like Picasso abandoned their style as soon as they had found it and hastened to find a new one. About surrealism Nezval recorded these personal remarks: ‘Has not surrealism come to us just in time, has there not been a need for this moral and intellectual crisis in people who have passed thirty and who have so or so many courageous works behind them, and does not a man of thirty who has achieved this or that find himself on an inclined plane from which the way leads straight to resignation and betrayal...?’

It should be remembered that the avant-garde which he then avowed not only had a demonstratively positive attitude to the Soviet revolution, but also displayed a liking for manifestos and theoretical proclamations, though - fortunately - the creative writers were not greatly bothered with their requirements. Thus, Nezval's poems about Prague, which the English reader is offered here in Ewald Osers' fine translation, are not easily assigned to any school or movement. They are simply the original poems of an inspired poet at the peak of his creative powers.

For a country lad from Moravia, Prague, from the moment he first stood there, became a theme from which emanated "centrifugal rays". Prague between the two wars differed in many respects from the city today. From the but recently collapsed monarchy it retained both its bilinguality and its liking for cafés, wine-cellars and taverns, some of which became famous as the meeting places of writers and artists. Several dozen literary and art periodicals were published in Prague. Czech artists were at home there as much as German or Jewish ones (Franz Kafka was still alive, as was Max Brod, the streets of the city still bore the traces of its natives Werfel and Rilke), there were Czech and German secondary schools and universities, there was a Czech and a German theatre and the mutual contacts of the cultures had a significant influence on the creative environment. There was a lively night life as well as literary discussions. The avant-garde professed collectivism and the protagonists of its ideas were united by ties that were often unaffected by years or frontiers. The person with most influence on Nezval was probably his friend Karel Teige, one of the chief theoreticians of the avant-garde.

In that precipitate inter-war period avant-garde theories influenced all the arts. With contempt for bourgeois art,’ Nezval recalled, ‘and its psychologising filth and seeming glitter we let ourselves be guided by the correct goal, over to the roots, to the roots of man's inner life. That this was not to the liking of even some of our comrades... over that we didn't lose any sleep.’

On the eve of the Second World War, however, the thirty-year-old, or nearly forty-year-old, poet again found himself on an inclined plane. Decisive for his decisions this time were not so much artistic manifestos as political events - above all, the criminal trials in Moscow. While most of his friends in the avant-garde refused to accept them, Nezval by then did not wish to get into conflict with "the comrades". He preferred to part with his friends and his work until then. He left, or rather disbanded, the surrealist group he had helped to found.

The "comrades" seized power in Czechoslovakia after the war, and the avant-garde - totally ignoring the appeals of the Soviet ideologists who demanded that art should serve the building of socialism, the proletariat and its class struggle, and who recognised socialist realism as the only movement - suddenly became the target of furious attacks. Nezval's friend Karel Teige was labelled "the chief representative of the Trotskyite agency in Czech culture". Some of Nezval's avant-garde friends committed suicide and Nezval himself, however loyally he behaved, was in danger.

Unlike Karel Teige, who refused to yield to the pressure (he died just a few days before he was due to be arrested), Nezval continued along the road he had chosen at the time of the Moscow trials. With the lightness typical of him wrote a long servile poem in praise of one of the bloodiest tyrants in history, Stalin. Moreover, he added a prettily rhymed propaganda poem, Song of Peace, in which, at odds with his temperament, he cursed criminal imperialism in the spirit of Stalinist slogans.

By this unexpectedly degraded poetry he forged for himself a solid shield: none of the Party ideologists could any longer attack the man who had sung the praises of the ruling dictator and fighter for peace. For many admirers of Nezval his propaganda writings from the early fifties were not only a sign of the decline of his poetic powers, but also a stain on his entire oeuvre.

Nezval himself probably had no illusions about this work: for him his propagandist versifications were a tactical manoeuvre to preserve himself and the whole of his past work.

As the most highly acknowledged poet of the regime, honoured with the title National Artist he could now do what no one else could: during the period of the Stalinist darkness he published his entire pre-war oeuvre. I remember to this day how, on that desert that had spread over the Czech book market and engulfed it with socialist-realist literary refuse, Nezval's pre-war poetry had the effect of living water, of an unexpected and unbelievable oasis. As soon as, following Stalin's death, the worst terror somewhat abated, Nezval did whatever he could to cleanse his dead or rejected friends and once more called for freedom for the artists as an indispensable prerequisite of creative work.

When he died in 1958 we printed in the periodical Kvĕten, which the younger generation was allowed for a time to publish, not an obituary - which would have had to deal critically with the profound contrast between his pre-war and post-war work - but a poem that clearly revealed his real attitude to life:

Lift off the burden of all heavy things
Though destitute, walk with the step of kings
Like cypress, moon and friend of dreams you'll try
to raise the mighty sea up to the sky

Let wings of bees your human injuries dress
Fly without wings and rudderless
Make light of human fate, count death for nothing
and fly up to the heavens with your coffin!

Vítĕzslav Nezval  (1900-58) was one of the leading Surrealist poets of the 20th century. Prague with Fingers of Rain is his classic 1936 collection in which Prague’s many-sided life – its glamorous history, various weathers, different kinds of people – becomes symbolic of what is contradictory and paradoxical in life itself. Mixing real and surreal, Nezval evokes life’s contradictoriness in a series of psalm-like poems of puzzled love and generous humanity. Nezval was perhaps the most prolific writer in Prague during the 1920s and 30s. An original member of the avant-garde group of artists Devetsil (Butterbur, literally: Nine Forces), he was a founding figure of the Poetist movement. His numerous books included poetry collections, experimental plays and novels, memoirs, essays and translations. His best work is from the interwar period. Along with Karel Teige, Jindrich Štyrský, and Toyen, Nezval frequently travelled to Paris, engaging with the French surrealists. Forging a friendship with André Breton and Paul Éluard, he was instrumental in founding The Surrealist Group of Czechoslovakia in 1934 (the first such group outside of France), serving as editor of the group’s journal Surrealismus. His mastery of language and prosody was unparalleled – contemporaries referred to it as wizardry. Alongside with surrealist poetry he wrote poems that sounded like genuine folksongs and for some time he teased the Czech literary public by the anonymous publication of three books attributed to a fictitious Robert David – one of 52 Villonesque ballades, another of 100 sonnets, all in strict classical form. His identity was guessed by the critics only because ‘no one else would be able to do that’.

Ivan Klíma is a leading Czech novelist and playwright. Born in 1931, he survived four years of his childhood in the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin (see 'A Childhood in Terezin', Granta 44, 1993, pp.191-208). During the post-Stalin "thaw", he worked as a publisher's editor and with Milan Kundera and Miroslav Holub on the radical arts journal Kvĕten. He spent two years in exile after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and was persecuted and prevented from publishing (except in samizdat) on his return and had to work as a hospital orderly. Much of his fiction has been translated into English and published in Britain and the US, notably A Ship Named Hope (1970), My Merry Mornings (1985), Love and Garbage (1986), Judge on Trial (1991), My Golden Trades (1992), Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light (1994), The Ultimate Intimacy (1997), Lovers for a Day (1999), No Saints or Angels (2001) and Love and Garbage (2002). In 2002 he was honoured with the Medal for Outstanding Service to the Czech Republic and the Franz Kafka literary prize.

Prague with Fingers of Rain by Vítĕzslav Nezval is published by Bloodaxe Books, price £8.95.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Siddhartha Bose on Indian poets

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets,

edited by Jeet Thayil

(Bloodaxe Books/Fulcrum,

2008): £12, 412 pages.

Review by Siddhartha Bose posted from The Wolf.

Recently, Aravind Adiga became the second Indian novelist in three years to win the Booker Prize. Amitav Ghosh, his older and more esteemed compatriot, also made the shortlist. Earlier this year, Midnight’s Children, the fantastical reimagining of post-Independence India and its most powerful and seething city, Bombay, was voted the best novel to have won the award in its forty-year history. These facts corroborate the extent to which the Indian-English novel—post-Salman Rushdie—is a visible entity in contemporary world literature. In contrast, the Indian poet writing in English occupies an uncertain, almost invisible space.

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, edited by one of the country’s finest living poets, Jeet Thayil, should be considered a significant event. It is an urgently contemporary and relevant book and deserves to rectify gaps in knowledge, especially in Britain, where Indian-English poetry rarely enters literary conversation. Bloodaxe should be commended for publishing some of the more interesting voices from Indian poetry in English, poets who view risk-taking in form and subject as a given.

In a striking passage from his long poem, ‘Missing Person’, the Bombay poet Adil Jussawala creates the persona of a poet condemned to obscurity, which is possibly representative of the Indian voice:

Bright sparks

on the international back-slapping circuit

are picking up prizes like static.

He’s for the dark.

The unnamed anti-hero of a poet, for whom ‘Exile’s a broken axle’, recalls Ralph Ellison’s invisible man. His voice is simultaneously rough and erudite, and he speaks from the underbelly of steamy, raw-nerved Bombay. It is a voice that reflects on its own insignificance and, in doing so, serves witness to an emerging and vital consciousness in contemporary poetry.

The most successful moments in Thayil’s anthology seek to give centre stage to such marginalised voices. In many ways, these voices represent the story of Indian-English poetry as a whole. Thayil wants this book to be ‘an introduction to an undeservedly little-known literature’. Many of the poems belonging to this literature inevitably address the modern, Indian identity as being perpetually hyphenated. Perhaps it is reductive to speak of a single identity in a country with over twenty official languages, English being only one of them. For example, one of the most popular Indian poets in America, Agha Shahid Ali, was a ‘Kashmiri-American’, to whom Thayil accurately refers as ‘a self-product of three cultures, Muslim, Hindu and Western, and a permanent “triple exile”’. The subject of Shahid Ali’s poetry is the trauma of history and the violence of cultural conquest, from colonialism to the dispute over Kashmir. Yet his language and idiom are reminiscent of the classical beauty of Urdu verse, as in ‘Farewell’:

In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked

in each other’s reflections.

Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are

found like this centuries later in this country

I have stitched to your shadow?

In this country we step out with doors in our arms.

Shahid Ali’s experience of living in many cultures and languages, as well as in their necessary histories, allows him a vast, politically engaged contemporary vision. He died of brain cancer in America and is little known in the UK.

The plural and hybrid voices of postcolonial exile and migration often create the most arresting modes of expression. This postcolonial vision is fractured, multifocal, and mutating. Rushdie has spoken of the ‘double-perspective’ inherent to the Indian personne de lettres, which works through the epistemological frames provided by the ‘East’ and ‘West’. One of the aims of this anthology is to chart this ‘chutneyfied’ lineage of Indian poetry—the mongrelisation of English, American, and Indian languages and identities—which Thayil claims is as rich as prose written by Indians in English. He resurrects, for a new readership, great poets like Arun Kolatkar and Dom Moraes, accentuates the inventiveness of contemporary writers like Mukta Sambrani, Vivek Narayanan, and Mani Rao, while also introducing us to lost renegades like Gopal Honalgerre and Lawrence Bantleman.

In Britain, Thayil himself is virtually unknown, although his collection, English (Rattalapax, 2003) ranks as one of the key publications in recent Indian-American poetry. Hailing from Kerala, Bombay, New York, and Hong Kong, his new work experiments with ‘inverted structure over strict verse forms’, while chronicling the afterglow of heroin addiction. ‘The Heroin Sestina’, published in this anthology, juxtaposes formal mastery with a brutal honesty that is rare in contemporary poetry:

[...] I’m saying, I know

the pull of it: the skull rings time

so beautiful, so low

you barely hear it. Itch this blind toad taste.

When you said, ‘I mean it, we live like stones,’

you broke something in me only heroin

could fix [...]

There is no affectation here, no problem of burdensome intertextual allusion. Even when the poet speaks to Baudelaire, remembering his ‘wolf’s heart’ as he wanders through Mexico City, the referencing is intimate, whisper-like, wise.

In contrast, for a poet as self-reflexively postmodern as Rukmini Bhaya Nair, the double perspective of postcolonial legacy is further complicated through negotiations with gender: ‘Considerthefemalebodyyourmost / Basictextanddontforgetitsslokas I / Whatpalmleafcandoforusitdoes / Therealgapsremainforwomentoclose I’ (from ‘Genderrole’). Here, the creation of identity locates itself within the interaction of ancient Hindu ritual and its slokas (prayers), spliced with reconstructions of post-structuralist philosophy. The compound words mirror the sound of Sanskrit invocation. For Mani Rao, the experience of gender is more visceral, where ‘Snakes run from burning skin’ (‘Untitled’). Mukta Sambrani, in her highly inventive Broomrider’s Book of the Dead, reflects on the nature of storytelling in a fashion reminiscent of the French nouveau roman:

Tell me the story of the swallowed plum pit or girl carried away to den of ants, silence for breaking. Break it. Was it a boy imprisoned by carpenter birds? Not woodpeckers. No. And was it a boy? Break. Who gets on the wrong train?

Jane Bhandari’s remarkable ‘Steel Blue’ bleeds Derek Jarman into words, through an alchemical seeing of the Bombay sea. ‘[U]nder rain-clouds was blued steel’ becomes ‘the navy of a raven’s wing’, and then morphs into spiderwebs that hold the memories of childhood. For the more conventionally minded reader, one notices the craftsmanship of Tishani Doshi, the mythmaking of Meena Alexander, and the humour of one of the presiding deities of the Bombay school, Eunice de Souza: ‘It pays to be a poet. / You don’t have to pay prostitutes’ (‘Poem for a Poet’).

Among the male poetry brigade, Srikanth Reddy’s play with form creates fascinating jigsaw puzzles, with ‘twilight in a box’ (‘Burial Practice’). In ‘Fundamentals of Esperanto’, Reddy reflects on the possibilities of meaning though language and also metaphor as translation:

Mi amass vin, bela amiko,

I’m afraid I will never be lonely enough.

There’s a man from Quebec in my head.

A friend to the purple martins.

Purple martins are the Cadillac of swallows.

On the other hand, Sudesh Mishra’s poems, charting ‘dispersal by water’ in his native Fiji, work through an almost Williams-like directness and precision. The short poem below, ‘Suava; Skye’, whilst recalling ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, inverts metaphor and makes the reader confront it headlong, while celebrating, concurrently, the beauty of the environment and the natural world:

A half-spent

mosquito coil

mounted on an upended fork


inside a squat jar

brimming with smoky water

is nothing

like the swan

he saw

that neutral day


its ancient ashen neck

upon the flood

of a loch

crammed with brilliant sky.

Nothing like.

Similarly, the aforementioned Honnalgere, who once exchanged letters with Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden, brings a ‘reckless originality of thought’ to his poetry, which he expresses with a simplicity that is unnerving and strange:


with her

finger tips

touched his


and waited for a reply

he said:

‘we have lost something else

with our lost tail.’ (‘The City’)

In the poem ‘Theme’, Honnalgere defamiliarises the female body with a similar strangeness:

‘there is a possibility / of breasts / becoming a theme / with coconut hard shells’. Here the complexity of thought and achieved simplicity of language hark back to the Zen koan, or the Taoist parable. Another previously overlooked figure of this anthology, Lawrence Bantleman, works through an almost surrealist imperative. His images are startling: ‘I’ve eaten Fish and in the place / Of centre bone a bomb / Smiles with a cherub’s face.’ (‘Sepuagesima’). For Thayil, this poet’s descent into obscurity and alcoholism in Canada symbolises the neglect that surrounds the Indian poet.

Significantly, much of the editorial work for this anthology was done for a special issue of Fulcrum (Issue 4, 2005), arguably the most innovative and internationally minded of current American journals. Thayil has added sixteen poets to the original fifty-six, covering the spectrum of post-Independence poetry. The very concept of the ‘Indian’ poet is addressed and reconstructed. Many live as cultural exiles in places as diverse as New York, Berkeley, London, and Melbourne; others are resident in the varied cultural centres of India; some, like Daljit Nagra, have never lived in the country of their ancestors. Thayil makes a special case of the link between Indian and American poets, claiming that it ‘goes back to Tagore, whose first appearance in the West was in Poetry, at the behest of Ezra Pound.’ A significant number of the poets represented in the anthology have either studied, or presently teach at, American universities.

If there is a complaint to be made, then I would say that there are a few too many poets in this selection. My interest wanes when I read lines like ‘... I hear the flutter of light feet / on the warm earth’, or clichéd references to ‘holy India’. However, many of the more idiosyncratic and interesting poets were first published by a small press in Calcutta, Writers Workshop. Run by one of the foremost Sanskrit scholars of our time, Professor P. Lal, this press has also published first collections of internationally renowned poets like Philip Nikolayev.

I will end by turning to the quintessential Bombay poet, Arun Kolatkar. In Marathi, he radicalised the language, forming the avant-garde along with Dilip Chitre and Namdeo Dhashal. His first collection in English, Jejuri, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1976. In 2005, the New York Review Books Classics published a new edition of the book, which Rushdie called ‘one of the great treasures of modern Indian literature’. The poems in the Bloodaxe selection are from Kala Ghoda Poems, published in 2004, the year of Kolatkar’s death.

Kala Ghoda is a vibrant arts district of South Bombay, bringing together wealth and poverty, the cool and the seedy. At first, the speaker of the poem-cycle is a grotesque pie-dog—which resembles ‘a seventeenth-century map of Bombay / with its seven islands’—emblematic of the bastardised, hybrid nature of the city. The ‘city reconstructs itself’ through the dog’s vision. In a linked poem, ‘The Ogress’, the titular figure’s face is half ‘all scar tissue / and looks / more like a side of bacon’. She washes a boy, her shins ‘overrun by swirling / galaxies of backsliding foam / that collide, / form and re-form... / the curved space / of his slippery body, / black as wet slate’. An old fisherwoman eats her breakfast of bread and gravy, while a ‘motheaten kitten’ devours the shrimps she sells. The pie-dog can ‘almost taste her saliva’. Through humour, immaculate detail, and strange metaphor, the poet creates the megalopolis that, in turn, gives birth to the poems of its adopted sons and daughters.

Twenty-first–century Bombay is going through unprecedented growth and shocking urban displacement, a messy process that is reflected in the clamour of its buzzing art world, its film industry, and its media. It is fitting that Bloodaxe’s vital and important anthology of contemporary Indian poetry closes with the unique vision of one of Bombay’s master poets.

CD Wright interview

The Wolf Interview: C.D. Wright

In 2007 C.D. Wright’s Like Something Flying Backwards was published in the UK by Bloodaxe. Its selection was expanded from Steal Away: selected and new poems (Copper Canyon, 2003), which was a finalist for the Griffin Prize. Prior to this C.D. had published eleven collections in the US, including Deepstep Come Shining (1998) and Just Whistle (1993). Like Something Flying Backwards includes work from those and other earlier books, as well as new work from her latest US collection, Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon, 2008), which has just been shortlisted for the Griffin Prize. She has received numerous literary awards and currently teaches at Brown University, Rhode Island. Regarded as ‘One of America’s oddest, best and most appealing poets’, C.D. lives with her husband, the poet Forrest Gander, with whom she edited Lost Road Publishers for many years.

Lynn Keller: You were chosen to be a MacArthur Fellow in 2004. In receiving that marvellously generous ‘genius award’ that comes to its recipients out of the blue, you acquired a singular honour, perhaps some burdensome expectations, and a wonderful opportunity. What has that award meant to you, and what has it enabled?

C.D. Wright: Like many people I have a conflicted relationship with the reward system—the obvious part being that although the dollars are always welcome, and can always be put to use (time, tuition, taxes), the exhilaration of being tapped is nevertheless very short-lived. On the heels of exhilaration comes the sense of being undeserving. Being selected, and being aware of the field, means being aware of the talent not being rewarded. In poetry, there is no shortage of talent; there is a surfeit. People who say otherwise aren’t reading enough or they are only reading the most visible, most rewarded. I am astonished by the spectacular ranks of the young who continue to commit to the demanding ‘call’ to poetry; by the ingenious strategies they employ to get the language to reveal its possibilities to us, indeed, our possibilities to us. I am humbled by the poets who practice to the end of their days with such integrity and sway. And among peers, where comparisons are most inevitable, it is easy to think of others whose work I take in deep with a high and generally healthy degree of envy. The MacArthur did not free me up to become an even better poet because my own psyche is too busy setting its traps, rather it kept the pressure on the weak spots always wrangling to defeat my strengths. So, it added another set of challenges, albeit challenges worth contesting.

LK: Toward the close of the introduction to the new text-only version of One Big Self you say, ‘The popular perception is that art is apart. I insist it is part of.’ And you go on to suggest that the aim of the book is to encourage readers to see prisoners—who are held ‘apart from’—‘as they elect to be seen, in their larger selves. If we go there, if not with our bodies then at least with our minds, we are more likely to register the implications.’ Yet, writing in the Chicago Review about composing your most recent volume, Rising, Falling, Hovering, you echo Auden’s assertion that poetry ‘makes nothing happen’. How do these two statements fit together, and what do you see as poetry’s possible efficacies? (A similar tension, I think, appears within Rising, Falling, Hovering: in the context of the American bombing of Iraq, you write, ‘This is no time for poetry’ (15); in contrast to Akhmatova, you say you cannot describe the horrors of this ‘media borne war’; you assert, ‘Nary a death arrested nor a hair of a harm averted / by any scrawny farrago of letters’ (23). Yet you do write the poem nonetheless, saying, ‘The first task is to recover the true words for being’ (28).

CDW: Well, who at this point in time can obliterate the tensions between feeling the utter necessity of poetry, and the near total disregard for its existence? Who can even explain its stubborn persistence in the larger culture? Recently I was asked to do an interview on National Public Radio for a programme that usually interviews people writing timely nonfiction or who are noted players in the sociopolitical sphere. I scheduled it in, and then I was notified I was to be replaced by someone with a history book just out, and the interview would probably be rescheduled later. The rescheduling never occurred. I didn’t think it had anything to do with me or the merits of my book, Rising, Falling, Hovering, I thought it had everything to do with the very capable interviewer not wanting to be caught out having to read a book of poetry; then having to discuss a book of poetry on the air for an hour. A reason was never given, so I have had to supply one as a matter of speculation. I recall watching a video of Robert Creeley being interviewed in which he said something to the effect that like playing the harmonica, it will come back, if that is what you do. Beckett’s ‘You must go on. / I can’t go on. / I’ll go on’, even as ‘[the voice] dies away in a vault [...] vast enough for a whole people…’ underlies any encounter with forces beyond one’s control. And along with many others of my generation, it is not a state of fragmentation in which I strive to write, nor of assimilation, but one of reintegration. The seams should show, but the container must hold. It’s one thing to be ascribed a plurality of selves, often pitted against one another, and quite another to be denied one’s quite particular selfhood.

Also, I have always found the isolation of poetry from other public discourses a hard pill to swallow. The only time I felt that I was truly successful in bridging the separation between poetry and an uninitiated public was when I undertook a multimedia project called The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-In Book of Arkansas. Because I was able to enlist artists from other media and because there was a mechanism set up for the project to tour, I learned I could use the tools of one art form to enhance another. It might have an attraction for communities in which poetry did not normally have a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching without compromising poetry’s inherent resistance to ‘reach out’. You only have to touch on the difficulty of poetry and the infotainment-driven context in which it gets made to know the gap is more akin to an abyss. That said, I would not be characterized as a populist. I do believe more people could engage with literature than are even minimally exposed.

LK: Could you elaborate about being denied one’s quite particular selfhood? Where do you see or feel this happening, and how? Is this something you have experienced yourself?

CDW: I just wanted to make a small claim for an individual consciousness, and the singular expression thereof, not for a mere transcription of subjective experience, but for the intermediate values the mind brings to bear on what the physical individual picks up as she makes her one earthly pass. I wouldn’t go so far as to trumpet a unified, stable identity.

LK: My second question follows from your comments about using one art to enhance another. Visual art has been an important component in many of your works, and as I recall, you ended up working on Deepstep Come Shining almost as if it were a visual installation on the walls. Are there other ways, besides enlarging the audience for poetry, in which the visual arts or the visual imagination have changed your poetry or your sense of poetry?

CDW: Simply put, I like to look. I see things I would otherwise miss through someone else’s eyes. If I could paint it or photograph it, I wouldn’t write it down. Deepstep was as close as I have ever gotten to a conceptually visual work, including my method of composition—on the wall. The forms inherent to one medium are not transposable, but they do penetrate the others’ borders. And they throw up possibilities to one another. I am very fond of what I call layering, of texture, building up and cross-hatching, if you will. I have never aimed for a smooth surface. I don’t know where else I could have gotten these notions if I did not like to look, and did not see for myself certain prospects for an application in language. And what I cannot perform in one medium that another can, I can still operate alongside. In collaboration can we create a third language, as translation arguably does.

LK: The cover images on your recent books are unforgettable photos. I’d love to hear more about those images and their meaning for you.

CDW: For the past two decades my covers (with one exception) have been photographs by either Deborah Luster or Denny Moers. With Deborah there is an ongoing collaboration. With Denny there is a complementary relationship to the text. In both cases long-standing friendship and mutual regard for image and writing are givens. The covers render the book whole. One can always take an image from the Getty’s mega-reservoir or from a museum. For me it’s personal, intimate, connected, grounded. I have known Luster since my fitful scribbler beginnings in Arkansas, before she in fact chose the camera as her instrument. Denny is one of my oldest friends in Providence; I met his images before I met the individual. Both of these artists use very idiosyncratic, labour-intensive means to get at photography. I like that. I remember one collaboration with Deborah when she was developing on the roof wearing a WWII gas mask (a process that quickly thereafter could be mimicked in Photoshop). Denny chemically paints his black-and-white images in the darkroom, rendering each image unique. Aside from my husband, Forrest, these are the people with whom I regularly talk about, fester over, question art.

LK: Your two selected poems—Steal Away, published in the U.S. in 2003, and Like Something Flying Backwards published in 2007 in the UK—have very different cover images that create very different effects. The cover of Steal Away, in which a ladder curves over a stark hill, suggests to me a mysterious but calmly open-ended expansiveness; I’ve only seen a small reproduction on the web of the image that appears on the new and selected poems published in Britain by Bloodaxe, but the wildly costumed and masked figure standing in thigh-deep water that appears there strikes me as a far more frightening, perhaps almost frenzied image. Why are the images for these similar collections tonally so different (or would you read them in other ways than I have suggested)?

CDW: The cover of Steal Away by Denny Moers is of an ancient hedge (a privet? in Portugal?). The hedge is so gargantuan, a long contoured ladder leans against its body to climb to and over its top; a snug opening has been cut in the hedge to allow ground passage. The title is from a well-known spiritual, and is put to secular, albeit spectral, use in an early poem including the lines ‘steal away / shadows of old boyfriends’. It seemed applicable to the collection, which I actually hoped to becalm in part with the title, and there was an obvious synergy with the cover image.

Like Something Flying Backwards is a more startling, somewhat hysterical title. The cover by Deborah Luster is of a participant in a country Mardi Gras. The masked figure appears to be rising out of a circular pool of water, but is actually on his knees on a trampoline. And I thought this title, this image, reflected the more untameable aspects of the collection that I hoped to foreground. It is, as you say, a near opposite approach to some of the same material. And I thought the points where the two collections diverged supported both ‘takes’.

LK: How else does Like Something Flying Backwards differ from Steal Away, and what accounts for those differences?

CDW: Neil Astley, the editor of Bloodaxe, wanted a larger representation of the poetry as he rightly assumed he was introducing me to a UK audience; so he included all of Deepstep Come Shining, whereas that title was still in print in the US, and so only a sample appeared in Steal Away, the US selected poems.

I included in the Bloodaxe edition poems I had not yet, and might not be, printed in a collection in the US, such as the gangly narrative ‘A Farm Boy’, written as a tribute to my father on his ninetieth birthday, along with poems that would end up in Rising, Falling, Hovering. Even with a new and selected, a consistent priority of mine is to make a book—a book in its own right, not just a collection. The composition of the book is very central to my aesthetic, and that would obtain even if the work were only to appear online. A chronology is a useful place to start in creating a selection of one’s writing but not satisfying enough to constitute the sole organising principle for a book.

LK: Your last three books of poetry, Deepstep Come Shining, One Big Self, and Rising, Falling, Hovering, employ a shared technique of repeating phrases or parts of phrases that make up the collage, weaving them through. Yet it seems to me that these repetitions may serve different functions in the three works with their quite different preoccupations or projects.

CDW: Along the way I discovered, beginning with Just Whistle: a valentine, that repetition is a very flexible convention. It has obvious sonic value. It shifts, emphasizes, accretes, augments, alters meaning. Repetition has a built-in momentum and thus can be used to establish or at least insinuate cadence. Very pleasurable. And when you are working on a longer work, repetition serves as a significant point of return, in lieu of a predetermined destination or definite narrative arc. It provides a breath-catching point of orientation. Very serviceable.

LK: Rising, Falling, Hovering depends on a foregrounded integration of very personal and broadly cultural situations; the recurring wounds and scars, for instance, are on and between lovers, and also in colonized cultures, or in the war-torn international world. What do you see as the role played by the personal material—the erotic connections, the tensions within the family, etc.—reported by the first-person speaker in this particular work?

CDW: Micro/macro, the dissonant self, the discordant world it inhabits. Our messy lives play out in this anarchic arena.

LK: And in this ‘anarchic arena’, how do you think about the uses of lineated writing and of prose? When do you use which one and why?

CDW: I recall Angela Carter saying that when a student asked her a pointed question about dialogue, she said, she had never been adept at dialogue, so she avoided it whenever possible. Dialogue being fundamental to writing fiction, and lineation being fundamental to writing poetry, I felt a considerable amount of relief in her response. I have never been confident in my sense of lineation, conditioned as I was to more or less end-stopping. But with the computer, lineation could be tried out every which way without the physical labour of re-typing; so I began to work more with the eye, the visual field, and to come to some understanding of language against space. I learned to enjamb, of course, but I do not find that a reliably effective device. It’s a conspicuous manoeuvre with an obvious result. I found the caesura more attractive as it directed both eye and breath. I prefer cadence to measure, but I have not fully developed its possibilities. Prose is more inclusive. I just don’t always want to leave so much out. In composing a long work, prose and poetry activate one another, take a cue from the other. A paradigm to which I aspire, unpunctuated, ineludible folding of line after line, cadence risen from the ground up is still beyond my reach. If I got there, I’d probably stick with it. Until then I herk and jerk my way through. I nevertheless consider it fortifying what Angela said in passing, as I knew it necessitated a great deal of artful negotiation to successfully avoid a staple of the art.

C.D. Wright was interviewed for The Wolf by Dr Lynn Keller. Many thanks are due to her and to The Wolf for their permission to post this interview on this blog. Like Something Flying Backwards is published by Bloodaxe at £12.