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James Tate

Samantha Zighelboim: How did you become interested in the process of erasure?

Matthea Harvey: I first read about erasures in Heather McHugh’s wonderful book, Broken English. There’s an image from Tom Phillips’s A Humument  (which I adore) on the cover and her essay, “Broken, As in English” discusses, in her characteristically brilliant way (“All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages at every turn”) Phillips’ work as well as the fragments of Archilochus (“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”), Heraclitus and Parmenides.

It’s interesting to think about what the eraser’s attitude towards their text is. Jen Bervin’s beautiful Nets is a respectful erasure—she allows her erased poems to talk to the original Shakespeare sonnets because the poems are printed in grey and her selections are in boldface (or shyface). Someone like Srikanth Reddy, in Voyages (an erasure of Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs) understandably has a different attitude towards the text, as does the artist Ariana Boussard-Reifel. She had a piece in the Museum of Arts and Design show, “Slashed, Under the Knife”—a book in which each word has been individually excised (it’s presented with those words in a pile next to it). Only when you read the wall text do you discover that the book was a white supremacist bible. I also love Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. As James Tate once said, “Poetry is everywhere. It just needs editing.”

Before you fortuitously found David Cecil’s book that fateful day, were you interested in Charles Lamb’s works? It’s interesting that he wrote that wonderful volume of Shakespeare (Stories from Shakespeare) interpretations for children, almost nursery rhyme-esque in essence.

To be honest, he hadn’t made a big impression on me, but once I’d erased his biography, I was hooked. Along with the Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary did write a book of poems for children, but none about Mary and her little lamb, since the poem that inspired that nursery rhyme was written in 1830, many years after they published their book). His essays (The Essays of Elia)are marvelous. I love Anne Fadiman’s essay “The Unfuzzy Lamb,” Sarah Burton’s A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb and Charles and Mary’s letters. It was funny to find tidbits like this one, from a letter to Coleridge: “[Lamb here erases six lines] Is it not a pity so much fine writing should be erased?” Or this to another friend, Thomas Manning: “I have scratched out a great deal, as you will see. Generally what I have rejected was either false in feeling, or a violation of character—mostly of the first sort.” He was erasing himself quite frequently! Or this heartbreaking glimpse into the siblings’ lives in one of Mary’s letters: “You would laugh, or you would cry, perhaps both, to see us sit together looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying and say we will be better on the morrow — he says we are like tooth ach & his friend gum bile, which though a kind of ease, is but an uneasy kind of ease, a comfort of rather an uncomfortable sort.”

Did you expect the poems or the narrative to take the darker twists and turns that they did?

Well, page one (in the original—we selected 100 pieces out of 108 and reordered them)was “Lamb lived in the background” and page two was “Lamb disliked the lark: that little orchestra. The world showed grey as something fallen from the mind,” so I think the somewhat gloomy sieve of my brain was at work from the beginning. It’s probably more of a surprise for the reader—especially given the bright colors of the paintings. That being said, I certainly didn’t expect them to fall in love and have sex!

How much did your own childhood experience (if any) with this particular nursery rhyme influenced the process?

Well, I’ve always been crazy about animals, so I do remember liking the story of Mary and the lamb that followed her to school, when I was little. Until the age of eight, I lived in Dorset, England, where there were plenty of sheep. Ultimately, my immense sympathies for the lamb in the book, probably owe more to my codependent relationship with my 17 year old cat, Wednesday.

Amy Jean Porter’s paintings add layers of complexity to the already palimpsestic process of erasure and composition. When did the idea to illustrate the poems come into play? What do you think that visual element added to the work?

At first, I was just erasing the book for fun. As a story emerged, the characters became very real to me. I had just done a children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake with Elizabeth Zechel, and I loved that process so much that I started wanting to do another book that blended text and image. I was already a fan of Amy Jean’s paintings—there’s no one who works with animals and text like her (right now she’s doing text messages on butterflies) and I liked the idea of handing over my text so that she could then transform (erase, expand, complicated) it with her images.

Do you think details (the love and madness and violence) of Charles Lamb’s life filtered into the poems?

Here’s another quote from Lamb—“You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall…” It’s good life advice, right? But I couldn’t extract only the honey—there’s so much sadness in their biography. Mary killed their mother in a fit of madness and Charles devoted his life to looking after her. When Mary smiled in a strange way, Charles would have to put a straitjacket on her, and the two of them would walk—weeping—back to the madhouse again. They lived with her madness every day (Charles himself spent a short while at a madhouse), so the word “madness” appeared relatively frequently in the biography, and worked its way into the text. I didn’t feel like I was guiding the poems(or that I was consciously blending the nursery rhyme with the siblings’ story) as I erased—more that I was excavating a story that was already there.

(To sum up our tryptych of posts for Dorothea Lasky, I present a brief and delicious interview)

It seems like some of the best writing that’s happening right now is coming out of the Amherst/ Northampton area. I’m thinking of Natalie Lyalin, Heather Christle, Emily Pettit. Matthew Zapruder went to school there. So did you. What’s the secret?

My instinct is to add to that list with the large number of great poets, writers, musicians, and artists who have come out of there also. But I am not sure where I would stop with this list. So, I will just shake my head and say yes, I agree.

That area is a generative space. Of course, I think so because I went to MFA school at UMass-Amherst (all of these people went to UMass, if not for MFA, then for undergrad.) The MFA program there is wonderful, it just generates. My teachers were Dara Wier, Peter Gizzi, James Tate, Noy Holland–they all taught me so much.

When I lived there, people always called the area the Happy Valley. I am not sure the origin of this, but there is something to the name. Amherst/Northampton, on the whole, is a very tolerant place. As an artist, I never felt more free to exist there and be myself. Where I hung around there, there was a dominant culture of acceptance of behaviors (although, probably this is a bit skewed as most behaviors there are pretty normative.) Still, I think tolerance is the ideal space and culture to create from within. And I think, despite the constricting other places I have lived, I carry this freedom with me always and probably these other poets do, too.

A lot of your poems, especially in your new one BLACK LIFE, use plain language—conversational, chatty—to get at huge ideas…like patience, simplicity, faith, etc. Can you talk a little about how you developed your style?

Sure. I developed my style after a long period of trying to hide what I was saying as much as possible in my poems. That is to say, for a long time I was interested in being as mysterious as possible and creating circles of language that the reader would never be able to follow. I think I distrusted my reader for a long time. Then somewhere in there, I realized that my reader was a person, just like me, who I trusted, but who existed outside of myself. So then, I decided I’d rather try to be as clear as possible and I combined the two instincts into the way that I write today. Still, I think my first instinct–mystery–always governs the poems a little no matter how plain-spoken they seem.

It’s been said that a poem can act as a spell and vica versa. Do you believe a poem can bring about actual change in the physical world?

I think language can always bring about physical change. I think language has weight, exists in the material world. It creates new materials by turning into and/or changing a thought. Thoughts, spells, and poems are physical things (they *almost* literally take up space in the brain.) And changing thoughts also make all kinds of physical change and actions quite literally. Words are the finite forms of a changing thought. They too have weight.

Anyway, casting a spell is like changing a thought, so I guess, yes, I do believe a poem can bring about actual change in the physical world. And, yes, I do believe that a poem can act as a spell. (And vice versa.)

When we worked on Poetry Is Not a Project, you often chose to say less in instances with more might have been said. Is discussing poetry simply case of less being more?

I think of Poetry Is Not a Project as an educational text and I take this category very seriously. I believe in sparseness, elegance, and clarity when explaining an idea to someone. I don’t like to flaunt the complexity of an idea when presenting it to a reader, because I think more often than not this turns off the very readers who are most important to me. In terms of discussing poetry, I don’t think less is more. But I don’t see the book as poetry scholarship, so I think my method is ok in this case.

What are you biggest influences outside of poetry?

I spend a lot of time listening and talking to people. I think the things people say, the ways people feel, and what lives they lead are my greatest influences outside of poetry itself.  Other than people, the visual world is a great influence to me and also, dancing and performance. The physical, spatial world and the arts that are closest to this world are among my biggest influences.

If there was something that you care about other than Love or Awe what is it?

Justice

Click here see Dorothea Lasky’s new book of poems Black Like. Click here to see her chapbook  POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT.

I worry about graduate students. When intention, and goals, and focus outstrip the accidental, the possibility of falling into exactly what you need to trip over, you ought to take stock: what do you just allow to happen? Some students will say, “Easy for you. You have a job.” They’re right. But I never planned my lifeever, and I think anyone who knows me, knows this is true. I’m not advocating that any one be as accidental as I am, but there needs to be some carelessness. The true power of money, or fame or talent is that it gives wiggle room for carelessness. I’ve been poor most of my life—sometimes dangerously so, and what I felt most deprived of was the right not to give a rat’s ass. A writer needs carelessness to a certain degree. They need to write just for the hell of it—without the pressure of publication, or work shopping,or a grade, or because it’s “worthwhile.” No child kicking a can wonders if it’s worthwhile. Can kicking is a value in its own right. So I like to instill in my students a sense of “just for the sheer white hell of it.”

This is what Flannery O’Connor was getting at when she spoke of developing a “habit of art.” So much of the industry of poetry is about “Work.” Being goal oriented, and focused can be detrimental, if taken too far. As my grandmah always said: “A dog chasing his tail, loses the yard.”I hate work. My idea of a meaningful life would be to recieve a spell that allowed me to lie down beside a beloved in a field of timothy grass, sans the bugs, and, every so often, she would tenderly ticikle my cheek with a blade of grass, and we would make out until ourl lips were swollen, and then walk hand in hand through blue chickory and ascend to the bed room where we’d have sex for six hours, in perfect bliss, fully realizing the tantric ideal, and then there’d be a movie, and perhaps a beverage, and the last rays of the sun would fall upon our noses just so, as we lay naked and tangled in each other’s limbs in abject splendor, and angels came with rock glasses full of Jameson– perfect little ice cubes that maketh sweet melody! Oh yes! Being short, and bald, and utterly untantric, I am forced to write this, rather than live this, which brings me to the point of my rant: writing is a compensatory act—an augmentation to a life that is not lived. It is what is missing. It is a void through which the hand moves, and, when the hand moves just so, the void allows the faces and landscapes to appear. to be vivd for a moment until they fade, and are replaced by bills, and obligations, and the voice of the world telling us to keep busy. Oh busy, busy world which hath not love, nor hope, nor Jameson: what does it avail thee? My true motto: “Lighten up and despair!”

This leads me to a writing prompt called “despairing more deeply into joy. All you need to do in this writing prompt is be undignified. James Tate is never dignified. He indulges himself. That’s why he’s famous: You need a cookie for this writing prompt, or anything you might eat when you miss someone– a cookie, rice pilaf, whatever. You need to realize life is both beautiful and hopeless, that, even if you win the Pulitzer, wrinkles will come, and body parts will fail you,and you’ll become King Lear and insist utterly false people kiss your warty ass until you drop dead, and they forget you.. If you’re lucky, you’ll be hot for about 20 years, and your reign of terror will be extended. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be less than hot,and that will mean you’ll have to be really smart or very kind to all sentient creatures just to get a little taste of what hot people get by simply breathing. Yes. Life is unfair. Ho hum. You have been cheated. You were born for greater things! Why doesn’t anyone realize it? Get yourself into a state of absolute indignity.  Right now. You can begin this prompt with any of the following three lines:

“You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning.”

“You sat naked on my sofa, all except for your glasses, and you asked me to remove them.”

“Why is that fig in your hand, instead of me?”

When I think of snow, I think of a navy blue P coat because I once loved a girl who always wore a navy blue P coat, and, in my warped mind, a couple flakes of snow are always falling into the darkness of her coat, and disappearing. I see her sometimes in dreams, and she is wearing the coat, and a little knit ski cap, and calling me : “Booshi!” I touch her hair. It is damp and wren brown, and it makes me feel wierd, and tender, and sadder than I have ever felt in my whole fucking life. Every time I go to touch her hair, and feel the damp, and watch the snow melt into her coat, she undoes the buttons, and lets me put my hands around her waist, and then she disappears. This is easy to do, this dreaming awake. I have given up all control of what  should happen, and yet I am the only creature of what happens. Writers are often introverts who secretly want to rule the world with an iron fist. They need to stop trying to control everything, and then they will have the absolute power of a hollow pipe through which the wind blows, and little children peer to look out the other side.

Anyway, by now, you are probably wondering where the prompt is. It is in the lines: Let’s look at the first line:

“You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning.”

Okay, we know someone is snow (not uncommon in a poem). We know it is “that year.” We know the snow fell on the speaker of the prose poem, and it appears to happen in the morning. What’s an odd hour? Perhaps we can do without the word odd, but odd sounds nice. We shall see:

If you choose this prompt, pick a year in your life that the reader need never know: 1991, or 1967, or whatever. List three things that made that year significant : You got laid for the first time, you came to know God, your father had a heart atack in his lover’s bathroom… whatever. Anyway, list. Put the list to the side. Now, consider snow in terms of all the five senses:

Sight: how is it falling? Is it swirling? Are they fat flakes, little icy pellets? Is it lake effect snow and blowing sideways? Does it fall in a still semi-darkness of winter, 7 Am. Does it fall under the street lights? Are you noticing how vividly green and red and amber the traffic lights are during snwy days? IS the wind blowing?

Smell: wet wool perhaps, the smell of the cold (We know it has a smell. What is it), a smell of wood smoke, etc.

Taste: Is the snow salty, sooty, Icy metal? Did you suck wet wool as a child (I did)? Children are always tasting the world. They’re like catfish.

Touch: does it sting your face slightly? Does it fall on your hair, so gently yet somehow perceptible? If someone should suddenly put cold hands on your face, would it piss you off?

Sound: And has God put a mute in the trumpet of consciousness? Is the snow like a damper petal? Have you ever stood in silence on the porch, and tired to hear ne snow flake among thousands?

Now, the good news is, you don’t have to use any of this stuff. This is what I call gathering. You’re stalling. Your picking up strays. The main purpose of this is to build the thing inside you– to trust that the truth of this dream is growing.” Fell” can be aggressive: it can mean attack, or affectionate ambush, or passion, or playfulness. In this one line, you have a lot to work with. I’ve been gathering by helping you gather. I have a blue cup full of coffee to my left. My heat is working. I am ready!

Prose Poem

You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning. I came to rely on it, and took my blue knit ski hat off, and let you sting my ears. But tell me, if we come to rely on being ambushed, is it ambush? The snow falls now. It isn’t you. Perhaps it is someone else’s dead. Perhaps it’s become the fingers of a clumsy child, a child who can’t button her coat, and must  pretend for the rest of her life that she likes being cold. How many things since you stopped being snow have I pretended to like? I put my hands over my ears. I don’t want to hear myself. This is sad. This is always sad. I stand at the bus stop, expecting you to fall, to touch my bare neck—to give me the good pain. I say “cut it out.” In the language of sad this means: “Come here!” Look! The traffic light is more green more red, more amber than it has ever been. It is a record traffic light! I am sick with love. Terrible things happen to people, or maybe they don’t. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking because a truly terrible thing would give me full permission to cry. I need permission. Something is locked inside my scarf—something that trembles, and smells of wet wool, and doesn’t know the lock is broken. It could come out—if it wanted to. If it  was that child, I would offer to button her coat. I would kiss the dark wool where the flakes were disappearing. No wonder I lose scarves—all those prisoners inside them! I can’t bear it any longer. Whatever it is, I want out. The bus is coming. Inside, in the still semi-dark, the green yellow ancient light of the bus, and slushy foot prints, and somber morning faces. Fall on me. My hands are cold. The buttons won’t obey. I am wide open. I refuse to listen. My hands are over my ears.
What is it I am so afraid of hearing? There is nothing terrible happening—nothing anyone can see. That’s what makes it so terrible. That’s what makes it snow.

Okay, so try one of these, and give yourself permission to digress, and, if you are a busy human being, give yourself permission to digress even further. Digression is nine tenths the law. Fuck the manuscript. Fuck the curriculum vitae. We serve them bitterly. We have to work, but it isn’t our  true kingdom. It isn’t snow.