Friday, September 7, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Seth Abramson

Poet Seth Abramson is here, talking about

the life of the poet ...

“Of all the seriously depressing ways you could be spending your life—in an office; chasing after money; puttering about in the suburbs—this one is infinitesimally less insufferable.” 

and love ... 

"... try to find someone who not only helps you soldier on, but who makes you feel down to the tips of your boots like they’re the one person you’d want to soldier on for.

and so many other things... Keep reading. 

JB: I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration–the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas–but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

SA: When I sit down to write, I’m trying to figure out how to make every syllable, word, fragment, line, sentence, and stanza—as well as my compositional method specifically and the form of the work generally—emanate from, and be responsive to, everything I’ve ever thought, felt, said, done, or experienced. It’s a ridiculous and impractical ambition, but it’s honestly how I experience the drive to poetry—which for me is a sort of nonmaterialist der wille zur macht, one channeled specifically through a single subgenre of the written and spoken word. When asked what my inspiration is for an individual poem, I usually try to scramble about for an answer so I don’t seem coy or false, but the best and most honest-to-goodness answer would be, “everything.” Not that that’s a concept I developed myself. Not by any means. It’s ripped right from Charles Olson’s Projectivist Manifesto—the notion that a poet must dive within himself or herself to locate and explore the most expansive landscape there is, the sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic self.

I’ve read many fine books of poetry which I suspect were the product of a very different philosophy, but for me—and this was certainly the case with Northerners and my most recent collection, Thievery—I just wouldn’t want to produce any work of art whose origin-point could be easily and blithely mapped. Human beings are a constellation of coordinates, some known and some only dimly guessed at, so why shouldn’t the art they produce be precisely that and no less? I think a more focused, more “topical,” more workmanlike form of inspiration is particularly well-suited to fiction and nonfiction. But for me personally, that is, for my own work, I don’t see it having quite the same purchase or vitality in poetry, its sometimes admirable results notwithstanding.

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

I don’t have many literary obsessions—I’m pretty dilettantish in my reading habits, which I find works best for both my short attention span and my tendency to use reading primarily as rocket-fuel for writing (due to the requirements of my current doctoral program, the time I have available for nonacademic reading is somewhat limited). When I stumble across a book I can’t shake it’s usually a nonliterary one: I reread Neal Stephenson’s 2,700-page speculative-fiction epic The Baroque Cycle every twenty-four months or so; I’m a sucker for magical realism (Gould’s Book of Fish, The Satanic Verses, Cloud Atlas, et cetera) but also anything epic, from Tolstoy to Chabon to Rowling. But obsessions generally? I’ve got plenty, and they’re by and large pretty low-brow.

If I limit myself to just the past few years, I’ve logged some serious hours on a series of television-watching obsessions (Archer, Veronica Mars, Angel, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Louie, Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood, Rome, etcetera) and some less-serious music obsessions (Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin; Fanfarlo; Fruit Bats; The Mountain Goats; Blitzen Trapper; Fun.; Kishi Bashi; and a host of obscure bands from before I was born—I was a sixties-music DJ in college, and I maintain an abiding fascination with the joyous, communal, sometimes-admittedly-faux naiveté of late-sixties British and American psychedelia).

I realize I’m exposing my somewhat pedestrian tastes here—or maybe just flat-out bad taste—but I’ve always felt that it’s not so much the subject or object of an obsession that counts as what you make of it. Any muse will do, if the way you experience being privy to a muse profoundly effects your imaginative faculties. I’m not going to attribute qualities of High Art to most or even much of what I watch and read in my “off-hours,” but I do try to pay attention as best I can to where my passions (whatever their source) are taking me. Whether it’s the rapid-fire wit of Archer, or the noir lighting of every room featured in Veronica Mars (and the noir shading of language in every conversation), or the way Angel treats with the Great Themes, the atmospherics of Lost, the hardscrabble tone of Deadwood—it’s all just a question of paying attention and trying to figure out how various media are used to compel attention from others (including me). The same could be said for my many conceptual, thematic, and linguistic obsessions: the idea of symmetry (and its false allegiances and paradoxical instabilities), which I think is evident in most everything I write; the language of the Bible, and of the courtroom, and of classical oratory, and of Delphic declamation; pre-Aristotlean philosophy (particularly that of the Sophists and the Monistic philosophers of the Eleatic School); Campbellian monomyths and Jungian archetypes; and so on.

I think of poetry as rhetoric-driven: Being a poet is all about paying attention yourself and then compelling a similar state of heightened awareness from others. So the act of attention—however it’s directed and from wherever it originates, however it’s enacted within others and to whichever end it’s deployed—is as gripping as anything else, though we must always, of course, be attentive to its ethics, as well. In any case, there’s no obsession I experience that doesn’t somehow end up in the poetry. Somewhere.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

In the past few years I’ve had occasion to do a lot of Q&A sessions with college students at various schools—sometimes regarding my own poetry, sometimes regarding my research into MFA programs and the MFA admissions procedures—and I consistently get in trouble for the way I describe my creative process. The result is that I really do feel like those of us who incline more toward Creeley’s “channeling” method of writing poetry often have to take a back seat when it comes to speaking of compositional method to aspiring poets. That’s a shame. But it really does seem that if you use Spicer’s phrase “Martian transmissions” in speaking to eighteen year-olds, you’re done for; in those rare instances I speak of poetry as an embodied process analogous to a natural bodily function, I feel I get younger poets’ attention and sympathy but often earn suspicious looks from their instructors. Ultimately, though, these are the only analogies that speak to me: poetry-as-sex, poetry-as-sleep, poetry-as-nerve-pain, even (in the physical sense only of course, not the metaphorical) poetry-as-bowel-movement—but all of these comparisons are either too explicit, too abstract, or too esoteric for a college classroom.

Still, I think some pushback is needed against narratives of inspiration and process that owe more to the essays and letters of the High Modernists than the lived experience of many of today’s young writers. I can still recall how shocked one class of students at the University of Iowa was when I told them that, yes, in some instances a very fine poem does get written appallingly quickly—or very late at night, or while one is on mind-altering (prescription) pain medication, or without the possibility or utility of thirty subsequent drafts being written hard upon the heels of the first two or three. And I always hasten to add that writing poetry “animistically” (as I call it, stealing a term from comic-book literary theory; a hat-tip to poet Joshua Corey here) is every bit as difficult as writing it using a more “classicalist” approach. Not just because the real battle gets waged well before one sits down to write—one has to learn, over many years, what writing process is most suitable to one’s poetic instincts—but also because animistic writers spend as much time on modes of attention and imaginative arousal as other poets do on research and meticulous plotting. There’s no short-cut to a great poem—but there’s also no single “right” way to get there. That’s the main thing I try to communicate to my own students. I think one thing a creative writing teacher can do is assist individual poets in attuning themselves to their own needs and instincts and productivities as writers. Otherwise, we’ll try to shoehorn ourselves into whatever everyone else seems to be doing. There are young poets for whom Pound’s way is still the best way, and there are others for whom that way lies frustration, self-loathing, and ultimately a turning away from poetry. And neither poetry nor society can afford to squander its human resources like that.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Regarding the first question, that’s easy: If you’re a poet or writer yourself, fall out of love with that other poet or writer as quickly and violently as you possibly can. I’ve been in three relationships with fellow poets, and I think it can really be grueling as a matter of temperament and psychology. Sometimes you’re in a relationship like that and you find yourself looking around and asking, “Okay, so which of us is the sensible, level-headed, even-keeled, feet-on-the-ground one?” And it’s like, “Oh, that’s right—we’re both poets. Fuck.” Okay, so that’s obviously not a very fair assessment. There are many incredibly stable poet-poet couplings. Well, a few, at least. But generally when I speak to poets and writers about what they’re looking for in a mate, the first answer I get is: Someone with lots and lots and even an inordinate amount of money. Seriously, this is the answer (usually tongue-in-cheek) I most frequently hear. I think the real point is that the life of a poet or writer is one of instability and uncertainty, and it’s comforting to think that our life-mate will be someone whose byword is something else entirely. Obviously it really has nothing to do with money, but it has a lot to do with a romantic partner being understanding of, and unaffected by, the psychic ebb and flow of the writing life. That said, a couple million dollars in the bank doesn’t hurt.

More seriously, I think so many of the poets I know are torn between two opposing instincts: to find a romantic mate who feels life every bit as passionately, with the same degree of tumultuous joy and anguish and bewilderment, as they do, and to find someone who makes all that chaos somehow feel safer than it really (in the event) actually is by not themselves being an artist or anything like it. When a poet finds another poet, it strikes at the heart of the alienation poets and writers tend to feel in our culture—okay, here’s someone who understands and values much of what I do, and for whom I can offer in return the same sort of understanding and support. But on the other hand, the banishment of one’s own feelings of alienation is usually just an illusion. It’s temporary. You’re a poet, you’re a writer, you have to face it: You’re going to be a certain kind of miserable and/or unreliable and/or volatile some identifiable percentage of the time, whoever you’re with. You’re just kind of built that way. The real question is not whether we get to see our passions and idiosyncrasies reflected in others but whether we’re with someone who makes every single day worth waking up to, and suffuses the moments we’re with them (or many of those moments, at least) with vitality and generative passion and a moment-to-moment engagement with all the visible and invisible stuff of the world—which for many artists, literary artists and otherwise, is not always a foregone conclusion.

So my advice to literary artists is—and your mileage may vary—try to find someone who not only helps you soldier on, but who makes you feel down to the tips of your boots like they’re the one person you’d want to soldier on for. And sometimes that’s not going to be the man or woman who happens to be a member of your local, forty-person coterie of poets; sometimes it’s going to be an astrophysicist with a trust fund and a special weakness for your flaky, nutty, off-kilter, borderline-depressive bohemian bullshit. Or so you hope.

All that said, I think I still fall for poets ten times out of ten; to me the worst torture is being bored, so I can’t bear to be around anyone who’s not seriously, even uncomfortably passionate about something. And preferably, quite a lot of things—whether or not they’re the same things that boil my blood and send me spinning.
Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

Man, I’ve got so many. One of them is this: “It’s not going to get any better, not even a little bit, so get accustomed to it. This is the rest of your life. In a nutshell.” That usually doesn’t go over well, however true it is. So I try to stick the landing on this one: “Of all the seriously depressing ways you could be spending your life—in an office; chasing after money; puttering about in the suburbs—this one is infinitesimally less insufferable.” That’s also true—I meet a lot of miserable poets and writers, but you know, none of them ever say to me, “I’d rather be doing wills and trusts” or “Drywall would have been better.” Which is no insult to attorneys or blue-collar laborers, it’s just that I haven’t encountered those comments or sorts of regrets yet. So the logic of that second pep-talk is kind of hard to pierce, try as you might.

The point is, writing of any kind—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—is an elective act, not a suicide pact. It should be fun. It should be a cause for joy. Or if not joy, at least indigestion rather than terror. That’s not the same thing as saying it should be easy. I remember a poet-friend once said that poetry is “difficult play.” Derrida aside, it makes me not entirely uncomfortable to think of things that way. When it stops feeling difficult, or stops feeling like a form of play, that’s the time to—I’m not going to say quit; I mean, everyone experiences bumps in the road, that’s how we know it’s a road worth trekking, and not linoleum—but that’s the time to take a break. Direct your passions forcefully yet fruitfully at all times, that’s always been the key for me, even if it’s advice I often fail to take myself and am apparently pathologically incapable of internalizing.

So no, I’d never bootie-kick a writer, but I might take them to a movie, or get them drunk, or declare a road-trip. I’m not saying writer’s block can’t exist; I’m saying that the physical act of writing is never really the problem, not just because reading the work of others will usually jump-start one’s one imaginative juices, not just because (as Kenneth Goldsmith says) you can always type out the phonebook to keep yourself aware of the physicality of writing even when you’re not doing it “creatively” in the most traditional sense, but because when writers get downhearted in the way I think you’re asking about it’s usually more of an existential crisis than a merely mechanical one. And in those situations it’s worth remembering that—despite what the best writing teacher I ever had once said to me (I won’t embarrass him by naming him)—poetry is not life and death. I spent years working in the U.S. criminal justice system as a public defender, and I can say with confidence that poetry is not life and death, life and death is life and death. Everything else is gravy, relatively speaking. This is not the same as denying that writing crises are usually crises over living, too. They are. But there it’s a matter of how, not whether, we will exploit all the literal and spiritual freedoms we have.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

I had two very different childhoods that even now it’s difficult for me to reconcile. From the ages of six to thirteen or so, I did everything you’d expect an upper-middle-class American child to do: started on more than twenty traveling soccer teams; started seven years in Little League, including three as an All-Star at three positions (pitcher, catcher, and shortstop); learned to play the drums, the piano, and the hammered dulcimer, as well as being in a makeshift garage band and taking singing lessons (I’d later be in three separate musical groups); attended Hebrew School weekly; spent so much time running around in parks and forests—I grew up in a heavily-forested part of suburban/rural Massachusetts, in a development with literally dozens of kids around my age—that even now my poetry is often informed by the image of a pack of boys running through a wood after dark.

I only mention all this because of how different my life became when I entered my teen years: I was a borderline agoraphobe who treated normally with others (including some in-school friends) during the day but after school retreated to a small room and locked the door behind him. For about four years. To this day I’m still not entirely sure why I punished myself that way, but it certainly was a form of self-torture, whether I intended it that way or not. And all of this was in the context of a completely supportive and hugely loving family who I think just had no idea (as neither did I) why it was I more or less stopped smiling for the first half of the 1990s.

Trying to resolve the question of how a boy survives, as a boy; how he becomes, in time, a man, if he does; how he traces the currents that take him from the one to the other, and learns which well-lit riverways to avoid and which dark ones to seek out; these are central themes and motifs in Northerners—as well as in my forthcoming third collection, Thievery—as is suffering, the eerieness of the North (both real and imagined; I’ll never shake those many hours spent deep in coniferous woods at an age when I believed anything at all might have inhabited them), and the capacity of the mind to endlessly project its own benign and harrowing deviances into the realm of the fantastical.

I’m one of those poets, I suppose, who is what he is almost entirely because of his childhood—I feel I’m still confronting my child-self today, in a confrontation which is as dark and chilling and Jungian as it is endlessly iterable, and that’s why there are so many boys and men in Northerners and Thievery and in much of my other work. When you’re sitting in a room alone for years, and your head is full of fantastical myths which are the only way for you to make sense of your life—because you’ve no one around against whom you can bounce all your psychic detritus, learning subjectivity through a kind of spiritual Doppler Effect—I really think the only option for your imaginative faculty is to send it deep into the self, into the gray matter of (dare I say it) the soul, and construct being as a sort of salvage operation. Northerners and Thievery both strike me that way, as the salvaging of a self from deeply-held, hard-won stories, as a salvaging of language and shared history to honor a time when I was speaking candidly to almost no one and felt, in fact, that there was no temporal or physical or conceptual landscape I could or did share with the rest of the world. Writing, for me, has always felt like an attempt to recreate the world—again and again and again—through an act of will whose mechanism (and limitation) is a phenomenon I think many teenagers experience: the inherent loneliness of language, especially when it is not combined with the warmth of self-love and/or the caring touch of another person. We write best when we are loved best, I think—a view which contradicts that of some older poets who see suffering, penury, and emotional decline as part and parcel of the productive writing life. Thankfully, such a draconian view of language, literature, love, and living is gradually losing favor in America and elsewhere.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose, The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009), and, forthcoming, Thievery, Akron Poetry Prize-winner; it will be published next year.
 He is also the co-author of the forthcoming third edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2012). In 2008 he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry, and his poems have appeared in such magazines and anthologies as Best New Poets 2008PoetryAmerican Poetry ReviewNew American WritingBoston Review, Colorado Review, and New York Quarterly. A regular contributor to Poets & Writers magazine and The Huffington Post, his essays on poetry, politics, and higher education have been cited online by The New YorkerRolling StoneThe EconomistThe Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Ed, The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and after six years working as a public defender in New Hampshire recently began a doctoral program in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (His blog can be found here.)