Elizabeth A. Hiscox: You’ve honored the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun with a sort of stippling of poems titled “Tomaz Salamun (If You Exist)” throughout the book. A text like Salamun’s Poker seems to offer a direct lineage to your own aesthetic but, because so much is found in translation, his work changes much between books (and translators). Where do you see yourself - and these poems with their direct addresses to a sort of spectral poet - in that equation? Is another translation, or perhaps a reader’s guide, being offered?
C.S. Carrier: I wouldn’t categorize what I’m doing as a translation or reader’s guide, except in the loosest sense of those words—whatever that may be.
I like that Poker can be seen as an influence to my work. Though it’s not always apparent, Salamun and his poems have been immensely significant forces on me.
In writing the Salamun poems, most of which came in a single sitting, I wanted to see what would happen when I questioned Salamun’s existence, given the fact that he is, as you say, a spectral poet and that his poems are rather spectral. It felt like the thing to do. Could such a force be real?
I wanted to see what would happen when I questioned Salamun’s existence, given that I’ve met Tomaz Salamun, shaken his hand, heard his stories, heard him read, sat in his workshop at the University of Massachusetts. Phenomenologically speaking, he does very much exist.
I wanted to see what would happen when I wrote poems to someone I believed in and didn’t believe in at the same time. Was Salamun real? A figment of my imagination? A vivid dream?
I wanted to see what would happen when I addressed this spectral, benevolent, energetic poet in order to better understand my experience with him and his work. In doing this, I hoped to engage with poetry and the idea of the lyric poet, topics Salamun writes about, topics others wrestle with when discussing the influence of him and his work.
Hiscox: Dickinson had hymns filtering in and pulling the pace, Akhmatova had the boatmen’s songs from the Neva peeking through, and there’s an undeniable rhythm to some of your work. What then, do you consider that background beat you’re pulling from, your boat song, sotospeak?
Carrier: Background beat? Music has always been part of my life. I seem to always hear the popular rock music of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I seem to always hear my parents’ music: Boston, Fleetwood Mac, Kansas, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Three Dog Night.
I’ve always been a fan of rock music. Van Halen’s “1984” was the first album I ever bought for myself, outside my parents’ sphere of influence. Prior to that, I had individual songs, John Cougar’s song “Jack and Diane” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.”
I was fortunate enough to be alive for the advent of hiphop. I’d listen to and rewind and listen to and rewind songs from The Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Sugar Hill Gang, Beat Street and Breakin’. I was mesmerized by the words, the way they were constructed. I wanted trying to eat them. The words in these songs were more than words, more than lyrics. They were dynamic, organic materials.
Many poems in After Dayton I wrote with music, usually jazz, in the background. Usually John Coltrane or Miles Davis. I took this technique from Robert Creeley. He wrote about the rhythms and changes of jazz influencing the diction and lines of his poems.
Throughout highschool and college, I was a bandnerd. I played percussion in symphonicband and marchingband. I don’t know how much background those experiences have provided, but I’m sure they have affected how I hear and feel language.
Finally, growing up in a house, with a religious family, a religious father, in particular, who always had the Bible in arm’s reach, growing up in the South, the Biblebelt, western North Carolina, in particular, I got my share of the liturgical metronome: sermons, hymns, and language of the Bible.
Hiscox: Peter Gizzi notes your deployment of “a dense lyricism of obsession and celebration” in After Dayton. This is a text in which an obsessive attention becomes an invigorated intimacy, and strikes me as inhabiting the idea that repetition is at once a chance to renew and reinvent – a revivification through re-visitation. Can you speak to your own view of this poetic process and / or poetic product?
Carrier: I’ve always strived to make poems that are new and reflective of the world as I see, hear, and feel it. For me, repetition is “a revivification through re-visitation.”
I like how repetitionbased rhetorical devices, like anaphora, allow me to engage language, which allows me to engage music, which allows me to engage imagery, which allows me to engage thought and emotions.
I like how repetitionbased rhetorical devices provide structure to imagination. In this repetitive structure it’s possible for me to see or discover new linguistic, figurative, and emotional possibilities. It provides a newness in sameness.
I like how repeating words and phrases can hypnotize or entrance both the reader and me. I’m interested in poems as hypnosis and trance. Does this connect me to Blake, Breton, Ginsberg, Jarnot, Lorca, Whitman?
I’m still trying to understand my love for repetition, which is one reason I keep writing poems that use repetitive devices. Repetitive devices are evidence of obsession and celebration, of attentiveness. Isn’t a poem evidence of this too?
There’s repetition everywhere: biologic processes, thought processes, mechanistic processes, musical processes, cultural processes. The Big Bang, walking, trafficlights, internal combustion, sunrises, the seconds ticking by, metabolization of glucose, cell subdivision.
As pertaining to process, I think about Stevens who suggested a poem was the mind caught in the act of finding. I think about Williams who called a poem a machine of words. I think about Mallarme who said a poem isn’t made out of ideas but words.
I think about something Gizzi said: what he wants to do when he writes a poem is narrate his bewilderment; not tell a story about it, but to create a text that embodies that bewilderment, that follows it, that inhabits the space where things he can’t quite understand come together. I like that a lot.
Hiscox: James Tate calls your poetry “an explosion of language, eerily precise,” and this seems one way to describe a sort of ordered, chaotic unfolding. I’m wary of saying ‘fractal’ in the poetic terms that Alice Fulton outlines, but cling to the vision of Mandelbrot and an analogy between your work and a mathematical fractal, not based on an equation, per se, but a portion of something that undergoes iteration – a form of feedback – to bloom into something fantastical. How does the part stand for the whole, or does it? I’m thinking especially of the Azalea poems and lines like “An azalea talks to other azaleas telepathically.”
Carrier: I love that you see the mathematical fractal and Benoît Mandelbrot, whom I’ve been a fan of for some time. Before I was a poet, I wanted to be a scientist, an engineer.
How does the part stand for the whole? In some ways, I think the answer’s obvious. Aren’t poets and artists engaged in parts and wholes and and the relationships between them? Don’t we use details to suggest larger structures? Don’t we say show, don’t tell? Doesn’t Williams say there are no ideas but in things?
Mandelbrot wants a mathematics that more aptly explains nature and its nuances. In The Fractal Geometry of Nature, he writes: “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”
Basically, as I understand it, Mandelbrot finds Euclidean geometry, the geometry of flat, perfect surfaces, perfect shapes, inadequate at describing nature, the world, partly because Euclidean structures are approximations, idealizations, thus absent in nature. Like words that stand in for objects.
He suggests in “How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension” that the smaller the increment of measurement the larger the distance measured. He suggests that a measured distance increases infinitely as the scale of measurement decreases closer to zero. Mandelbrot’s theories are nice analogs for what I do as a poet.
Selfsimilarity is a property of fractals, and scale invariance is a particular form of selfsimilarity. Selfsimilarity suggests that the shape of an object is basically a repetition, either approximately or exactly, of the shape of a smaller part of a whole. Scale invariance suggests that when magnified a part of the object will be a repetition of the object. So, selfsimilarity and scale invariance are akin to synecdoche and anaphora (and other repetitionbased rhetorical devices).
Hiscox: Sonic love feast and auditory circus, After Dayton revels in the shimmer of sound and joy of the well-chosen word. Your poems often create new language partnerships that remind me of the work of kennings in Old English poetry, but without the formula. Can you talk about your relationship to sound, and how it might feed into what you see as your “voice.”
Carrier: “Sonic love feast and auditory circus”—I like that. I have this image of words as acrobats somersaulting across the floor or trapezing through the air of a circustent or as clowns cramming into a Volkswagen Beetle. I think I’ve had this image for some time, before you presented it to me.
In many ways sound is everything. I’m the kind of poet who will say that a poem isn’t complete until its read aloud. I suppose this stems from my connection to music and from the fact that I adore the lyric poem.
A friend recently commented on the luxuriousness of After Dayton’s words, particularly those in the “Azalea” poems, and that, in reading them she was compelled to read aloud. I told her that that was one of the highest compliments she could give this poet.
Kennings are a favorite device of mine, though most of the kennings in the book are visual rather than aural, meaning that many of the fusings, neologisms, occur with words that would occur together naturally, usually an adjective + noun construction. Radiotower, avantgarde, pickuptruck, firefighter. As opposed to the metaphor found in a kenning such as wound-hoe.
I kenning any combination of words in which standardusage requires a hyphen. I don’t like hyphens very much. They seem, for all their want to unite words, and thus ideas, to only drive them apart, like a wedge.
Sound and my “voice”? I’m fascinated with language and utterance, the ability to form words with the mouth, produce meanings, conjure objects, through nothing more than the manipulation of breath through the larynx and mouth.
One of my favorite televisionmoments is in The X-Files’ episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” This speaks to my relationship to sound, repetition, language, metaphor, and poetry generally. Jose Chung is writing a book about alienabduction, and in interviewing Scully, he expresses his appreciation for hypnosis, despite its status as a questionable technique, given that no one knows how it works. Chung says to Scully: “… I'm fascinated how a person's sense of consciousness can be... so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words. Mere words.”
Hiscox: This book exists in such a strong frame: structurally sound with inner bracings that deny a collection. More conceived than compiled. I’m wondering where the loose ends that didn’t arrive between these covers are headed. What’s beyond After Dayton?
Carrier: It’s interesting you feel After Dayton is more conceived than compiled. Honestly, the book is both conceived and compiled.
I had some poems, and I put them together. I weeded out those that felt redundant or overkill and left those that seemed to speak to each other.
The repetitive structures in the poems, e.g. the same title for multiple poems, the use of anaphora in multiple poems, repetitive imagery, make for the inner bracings. And that’s what I’d wanted when I put the book together.
As for the loose ends, they’re headed into another manuscript similar to After Dayton in design, but different from it in tone.
Hiscox: After Dayton creates an unexpected harmony of the well-versed moment (“I keep coming back to your penelope weave,/”) and the unashamedly contemporary (“…the miniature travelkits, phonecards, ephedrine.”). The mix is sacred spiked with profane, or vice-versa. It strikes me as markedly new millennium at the same time it is unique on my shelf nine years in. What do you see as the current challenge for poets, and where is that big behemoth we call “American Letters” headed?
I think our challenge is to write interesting poems, poems that push the envelope, that question what a poem is and can be and it might be read, poems that engage the world socially, politically, and economically, that speaks to both poets and nonpoets, artists and nonartists.
Our challenge is to write, read, breathe, and bleed poems while finding a way to afford a mortgage and health insurance.