In Caroline Knox’s nimble new collection Flemish, a poem entitled simply “They” begins: “They live in a mobile home/made of Adobe Caslon.” The elided antecedent here could very well be Knox’s poems; while maintaining a healthy awareness of themselves as constructed objects (“black and white graphic art,” Knox has called them), they simultaneously feel in constant, and deliriously unpredictable, motion. Vehicles, metaphoric, historical, or embroidered on pillows, abound in these poems. In “Harley Lyric”, Knox has somehow managed, with her characteristic wit, to conflate a medieval manuscript of miscellanea and the eponymous “chopper”—and with a tonal palette at once brassy and arcane. There is something playful, almost giddy, in these poems—they create the sense of setting out on a road trip, purposeless and hopeful.
Flemish is Caroline Knox’s 8th poetry collection, her third from the excellent Wave Books. This year, six of her poems were included in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry edited by Paul Hoover, the occasion of whose publication was recently celebrated by an epic reading by Knox and twenty three other of the most exciting poets in American letters at the New School in New York City. Although a span of continent kept me from being able to attend, the wonders of electronic mail and Caroline Knox’s generosity of spirit allowed me the privilege of a vivacious dialogue with the poet, the transcript of which follows.
SE: I want to mention first of all that Flemish is a physically beautiful object. I am fairly sure you didn’t design it, but whoever did seems to have gotten something of the spirit of the poems into the physicality of the book itself. The idea of the book, or the text, as an object, does this make sense to you in the way you think about and make poems?
CK: Wave Books is adamant that their books be beautiful, and I’m so glad they are. Wave’s are all done by Quemadura, who is one poet named Jeff Clark, from Ypsilanti. The speckled white cover is recycled material, and the focus is modernistic typography. I was invited to choose end papers for Flemish (strawberry). (But I do like very much Wave’s emphasis on doing a great deal of its work online, on its website and in social media, even though it publishes hold-in-your-hand books, not ebooks. This is in tune with the excellent goal of parity between print and online works.)
My great aunt was a college librarian, and I spent a lot of time with her when I was in school. She was connected with the Arts and Crafts movement, with book designers and typographers, so I got a good look at all that thinking and making. And a respect for it.
SE: I was excited to come upon Francis Ponge’s cameo in “Stove Seasoning”–you call him, aptly, “an advocate for things”. He is one of my favorite poets, and rarely does he get much mention. I would guess that you are also an “advocate for things”, but the relationship you engender to the “objectified” is much more complex, I think, more nuanced. I think of Ponge as something like a lepidopterist, pinning the objects down with words.; whereas, in your poems, the words seems to hover about the objects, or the other way around. It’s like a dance. So can you talk a little about how objects make their way into your poems, and what you do with them there?
CK: Ponge’s thing poems seem like short art history essays defining the thing. He is like a lepidopterist. Maybe I’d try to approach the thing from a lot of angles, trying to obey Stevens: Constantly see the world in a new way, and It Must Change. (So style is what changes it, if you can get the right style.) I’d like not to be bound by any diction level or syntax while I wrote about the object, so that my poems about objects or about anything else, could try to have a changing and changeable kind of beauty, changeant.
In “He Paves the Road with Iron Bars,” (Verse Press) I was trying to do something like this. We think of Emerson as singlehandedly inventing a new philosophy rising above the material. But he loved stuff, and was enchanted by the railroad. (It has such great shop talk.) I love Emerson, who changed the language with the marmoreal paragraphs, but also, oh, the material world! And I think the language of jobs is so interesting as a lexical source for poems. Maybe especially if you don’t know the mysteries of other people’s jobs.
SE: Something that struck me in many of the poems in Flemish was the juxtaposition of the long-lived, if not to say eternal, and the ephemeral–a Carrara marble font full of construction paper fish, a mobile home made of Adobe Caslon. Your poems often have this quality of being at once solid, etched, and as slippery as one of the sloe-eyed dolphins in “Subjects”. How does time figure into your poems, and into your use of language?
CK: I thought in my youth that I would become a medievalist (which didn’t happen), so I was drawn early to languages then taught – French, Latin, Old English – so I keep (fragments of) these in my head. I don’t see why they shouldn’t show up in poems occasionally to give some sense and some beautiful or at least interesting sound.
I feel drawn to switches in diction levels and in syntax, no matter what the poem subject. It feels inclusive. I think I learned this from Auden, and from the New York Poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Stevens and Ashbery often appear to qualify or as some say “cancel” their statements. I think that’s hugely interesting, and the switches can make it happen. Valley Girl talk might be another good lexical source. My son-in-law’s aviation magazines are, too – “docile stall characteristics/ and retrofit fuselage utilizing/ a semi-monocoque construction” (“Who’ll Buy,” Quaker Guns).
SE: Speaking of Auden, in an essay you wrote about how he has influenced your work, you describe his syntax as sounding almost as if it were English in translation. Even better, you described it as “slightly cracked”. This phrase works perfectly with the poems in Flemish, and in your other books as well. The language is recognizable, but, yes, slightly cracked. Is this something that you are consciously pursuing in the act of writing, this feeling of translation?
CK: First, I want to point out that in the section of the essay “2. Syntax” that I’m talking here just about the poem “1929.” I don’t think that Auden did this kind of “crackedness” or distortion often. I think he was experimenting with it, enjoying it probably, in this investigative poem. The crackedness suits the theme of exploration and discovery. The crackedness or translatedness helps deliver the anxiety!
And I definitely feel influenced by Auden’s experiment – to distort the language slightly, making it as you say recognizable but slightly cracked. (No one would want to do this ALL the time – it would be mannered and boring.) Yes, as you say, I do want to make my poems in Flemish as elsewhere sound slightly translated from Eng to Eng – a lot of the time but not all the time.
SE: In “He Lives in Bayonne”, “he” emails a blank screen; in response, “she” emails him her trash icon. These lines are very funny, and that is at least partly because they communicate something that we somehow understand, and yet it is in a language in which we are not quite fluent yet. Can you talk about how things like the Internet and texting, which are certainly altering not just our language but even, so they say, our brains, have changed your writing?
CK: I admire so much a book by Janet Holmes called f2f –it is ALL in texting, how charming, what a tour-de-force. Language certainly will gradually absorb the new technology, won’t it? It certainly has begun to.
I guess that collecting fragments – words and phrases – has a whole lot to do with method (I suppose all writers do this). It’s inductive.
One more point about the New York Poets – I think their interaction with abstract painters and painting made me want to situate on the page a lot of elements that don’t necessarily belong together, but might complement or clash with one another – this goes along with picking words and phrases that don’t belong together. The surface of the poem should offer a lot of interesting elements. It has to be done without sounding showoffy or bathetic.
SE: In the Auden essay you liken the speaker in one of your poems to a pilgrim. I loved this idea–because often the poems seem like pilgrimages through the landscape of our shared language. Does the speaker come out of the language for you, or does the language arise out of a certain stance that the speaker has adopted towards the material? Or some of both?
CK: I was talking about a sort of pilgrim narrator in “Souvenir de Roc-Amadour” because pilgrims do go there, and because I was writing a poem – since poets are always pilgrims during the writing process of the poem, wondering whether it’s going to pan out into anything, or into something you can put your name to.
The speaker in any poem has to come out of the language, and also the language comes out of the speaker – both of these, just as you say. Isn’t it a balancing act; you have to do both at once, and remember what you’re doing. It’s dangerous and exciting and you don’t want to wreck something good that’s half done. The speaker has to change all the time! In “Boiled Snow,” the person who says, “A distinctive new gelato” is not the same kid who says “Flavor of the Month for March!”
SE: Something I have noted before about all of your poems, and these new ones perhaps even more, is that they are completely unpredictable–there is simply no telling where a poem will end up from first line to last, and every move in between surprises. You have a startling array of nouns at your disposal, and do wonderfully unexpected things with prepositions, not to mention pronouns. But there are, it turns out, far fewer verbs than one would expect in such dynamic poems. I have often felt that English was a language somewhat deficient in the verb department…can you shed some light on how you create movement in your poems, what propels them forward?
CK: I don’t know where the poems are going myself.
As well as the New York Poets, Marianne Moore often does not come back to her beginnings, to a subject or a statement. I always liked that; it’s daring.
Examples from two poems from Flemish: in a poem called “Key,” I wrote, “You can knit direct from a photograph, it’s like an atlas.” The directions are supposed to help, but they didn’t – and then the photo made everything instantly clear! Who could have predicted this?
Comedy rests on unpredictability; we expect x, but we get y. Our expectations are upset, and we burst out laughing; that’s the recipe for comedy, isn’t it? So if you can choose the right x and y, you give delight, or puzzlement, or slight awe. In “Harley Lyric,” I was so stunned by these two facts: 1. BL Harley MS 2253 = a collection of top-drawer love lyrics, 14th-15thc. 2. Harley motorcycle. The ms. ref. sounds like a motorcycle model! The first lines of the poems sound like biker songs! Koch said of his and Ashbery’s and O’Hara’s work, “We didn’t see any reason to avoid humor.”
Another example: it may be funny to put your dogs’ names, “Wuffy” and “Chips,” in double quotes – are the dogs really named Rex and Fido? But sometimes the unpredictable isn’t funny or important – it’s just believable. It doesn’t prove anything or lead to anything, so it must be there for its own sake, and the moment fulfills itself. In my book Nine Worthies, somebody’s little brother tells at some length to a room full of grownups all about shad and shad roe and shadbush. The people sit and listen. That’s all there is to it.
You can also plan the appearance of unpredictability. Right now I’m writing a sestina which tries to obscure the fact that it is one, though a lot of internal rhyme and other distractions.
SE: It seems that form allows you to make poetry out of the material of the everyday—not “poeticized” but direct—the language simply lifted directly from the vernacular but “lifted into art” through the form in which it might be re-experienced. Can you say a bit about your use of forms, especially traditional ones, in Flemish?
CK: The traditional forms I use in Flemish are (upon reflection) these: tercets, libretto (including a sonnet of sorts), (short) prose poems, song. I don’t obey the forms very strictly. To use a form, with all its expectations, creates a place to upset those expectations, usually only slightly.
Tercets seem comfortable for the writer to ease into; they have a leisurely and even meditative feel and look, I think. In Flemish there turned out to be four poems in tercets: “He Was a Chartist.” “Stove Seasoning,” “They,” and “The Font.” (I’d like to be able to do such a poem that went on for pages.) The small and regular-looking stanzas allow you to put in some surprise material for contrast. The stanzas look like strung beads, and maybe act like them.
Cantata libretto: I adapted the libretto (by Picander) of Bach’s Coffee Cantata very, very loosely. It was a game and a dream at the same time. I wanted it to be too short, and it was. I wanted it to be full of notes of today – the wedding nonsense, the Starbucks nonsense, the poetry reading of opaque work.
Short prose poem: “Key” and “The Scottish Play” seem to be nuggets of wisdom, definitive blocks on their subjects – but they really don’t do the reader any good! They’re probably just an excuse for playing with language, a valuable activity in itself. “The Scottish play” is a nickname for Macbeth, but using it as a title turns out to be thoroughly pretentious, and nothing to do with the poem, really, just a way into it.
About “Key” – The bold face section of “Key” is one of Poor Richard’s sayings, one of Franklin’s “scriptures,” made into the shape of a key. Quemadura graciously spent a lot of time on typesetting this! The proverb is hidden in plain sight. But there’s no key to “Key.”
Song – “Aragon” seems to be an elegiac piece (a “fragment”?); when I wrote it I remember being very interested in sound, and in putting the French refrain in as a piece of folk poetry that someone else learned from someone else. (You can’t do this too much – it gets too adorably precious.) Maybe the speaker is a pilgrim – to Santiago da Campostela?
So, to sum up, I think one of the reasons to use any traditional form is to introduce surprise material into the form, surprise material that sits comfortably with the form’s other aspects.
To drink boiled snow
To drink boiled snow is good science.
It may affect the water table
to manufacture boiled snow on the rocks
218º Fahrenheit for however many minutes.
To skate on black ice is hard science
looking down through it to a broken and frozen rowboat
six feet under in Davy Jones’s Locker
in black tie in the middle of the night,
walking on thin ice, to skate on the
leading edge of thin ice, as abraded maple
leaves’ patterns trip you up. To drink
unboiled sap as the deer do, clandestinely
out of sap buckets, starting on Birthington’s Washday;
to discover in frozen sap
a distinctive new gelato! Flavor
of the Month for March! To write
most of a poem out of
infinitive clauses, to discover
in brackish tidepools much too early
harbor seals in camouflage on the rocks,
and to marvel at these seals’ poise and grace
as they blunder diffidently into and under the ocean.