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- Interview :: PRAC CRIT
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- Interview with Jorie Graham :: Earthlines
Publication Type:Web Article
Source:PRAC CRIT (2017)
Keywords:PRAC CRIT; Sarah Howe; interview; fast; fast (UK)
Deep in the winter of 2016, Jorie Graham welcomed me into her Harvard office for the first time in ten years. ‘Do you still remember all this?’ she asked, gesturing around the room. I took in the framed poem of Seamus Heaney’s on the wall, the stapled pile of student work she was in the act of scooping from her desk, and beneath the darkened window a wooden box—it came back to me then—with its cargo of multicoloured rock samples, like a gentle reminder that we are just blips in geological time. She pointed to a more recent talisman resting nearby: a stretch of mottled branch given her by the British poet Alice Oswald, who had picked it up on a walk along the river Dart. A small piece of nature freighted with place, friendship and the reach of the imagination, she didn’t need to explain its significance. ‘I love it so,’ she said, ‘I feel it every day.’
Hardly knowing what I was doing, I took one of Jorie’s workshops back in 2007, joining the generations of students who have passed through her hands, first at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later at Harvard, where she is now the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric—a post held by Heaney before her. I didn’t know it then, but that semester would subtly rewire all my priorities. What I recall most vividly is her long, impassioned, impossibly pyrotechnic close readings of poets from Li Bai to Dickinson and beyond. It felt like reading poems was the most important thing you could do in the world.
As we headed out into the cold, I offered to take the heavy stack of papers from her. She was visibly pained by her shoulder, a relic of the health troubles she has suffered in recent years, including cancer treatments that have left her looking tired, grateful, but anxious: ‘And you get a little extra life to live now—here—can you still live it’ (‘Prying’). That phase of her life is registered in the biopsies, MRI scans and hospital beds scattered through the middle section of Fast, her twelfth collection of poems due out this spring. As well as that brush with her own ‘disappearance’ (as she put it in our interview), Fast recounts in undefended detail the last hours of her father’s life, as well as her elderly mother’s decline. Often when I spoke to her last year, Jorie would be about to get on a plane to Italy—where she spent her childhood and where her mother still lives—to care for her.
Katie Peterson has observed how aware Graham’s work is of ‘the increasing difficulty of asserting anything like wisdom within the poem. She is opening up the lyric poem to examine its efficacy. She is not destroying it, but examining it, a process as disbelieving and insistent as a mourner with a body.’ Joey Connolly’s essay in this issue of Prac Crit anatomises the ‘difficulty’—of absorbing, of communicating, of carrying on—that is both the weave and the subject of ‘Honeycomb’, one of the two poems from Fast we have the pleasure of previewing. Graham might seem at first glance to be a poet of ideas, but what I love about her work is actually its rootedness in the body and the senses. As she explained to the Paris Review, ‘I don’t think you can actually be human if you don’t know you have a body. You can’t have compassion, which is a physical experience at its root. You can’t imagine an other, let alone the point of view of an other. You can’t have a moral vocabulary in other words.’
These same preoccupations—with the tussle between flesh and mentality, with empathy and moral imagination—turned up again in a different key as we discussed ‘Cryo’, the last poem she wrote for Fast. Our interview grew out of dinner conversations early last year that spilled over into emails. But it mostly took place in the weeks after Donald Trump’s election on 8th November, reaching a flurry of intensity in mid-January 2017, in the days leading up to his inauguration. I started to notice how often the word ‘breaking’ cropped up as she spoke about Fast (with a knowing nod to braking?), now with reference to a political system, now an ailing body, now a line of poetry, now the live feed of real-time news. Jorie described listening to the senate hearings for Trump’s cabinet posts unfolding on television as she typed her answers (‘It feels like a point of no return’). Those answers share something of the wild energy, despair, internal conflict and exactingness of the poems we were discussing.
‘Who is this talking now.’ So asks an earlier poem in Fast, but with a curious, not-quite-human flatness: a statement where we might expect a question mark. Other poems inhabit the voices—can we say the consciousnesses?—of non-human entities from a chat bot to the deep seabed. In ‘Cryo’, the ‘I’ recounts its ‘leap from one sort of being, one sort of being / immaterial to another. A possible alien subjectivity’, as though continuing to speak from a space beyond human life. How did you arrive at the poem’s voice, its tissue of voices?
Well, first of all, over its five years, Fast was a thrilling but incredibly hard book to write—a book that seemed to end many times. I kept thinking I could not go any further with it. Long stretches went silent between poems. So while I was in it I felt I was breaking through, and then I kept thinking I had to throw the whole thing out. But when it finally started to come together, it was not like any experience I have had. It was like a ghost emerging. Suddenly it coalesced and stood before me. And ‘Cryo’ was the last poem written for this book. So it had all the other voices the book had attempted to fathom and incorporate in its wake. This was not something I consciously set out to do at the start—and the book explores many other aspects of life—but yes, over these years I became increasingly compelled—invited, forced, ethically tempted—to try to find my way to voices one would generally call ‘non-human’, as you point out—or voices that attempted to approach, or approximate, such a state. I don’t want to narrow the experience of the book to this one aspect of it, but yes, it includes this attempt, this practice. I could not get out from under that imperative. It kept reasserting itself.
What was it that led you to that point?
Many things. My experience of some aspects of artificial intelligence. My increasingly desperate sense of myself as a member of a species—a species deeply implicated in the extinction of other species. Extinction—grappling with that. My illness and the feeling of an artificial me being gradually built by my ministering, oftentimes non-human, angels. My father’s body transitioning from living to not… My increasingly thin sense of my ‘singular individuality’ just as deeply singular things were happening to me—my diagnoses and treatments, my father’s death, my mother’s illness—which were overwhelmed by the much larger diseases—cultural, creatural, planetary. They just are incommensurate, cannot be held in mind at once. And yet must be. So that all sorts of ‘normal’ human emotions are baffled. What is personal guilt? What is mourning, under these conditions? How dangerous is desire? Does one even have the right to—or room for—happiness, love, the daydreaming that makes life feel so wondrous. This hummingbird suddenly now hovering on my flower—astonishing—as I look up from new reports of genocide in Syria—can I let it into my heart, can I not. And then of course it too is endangered. It overwhelms all of us, it is physically painful. It all becomes a dizzying set of overlapping causes and outcomes until there is no place to stand from which to understand, to organize emotional, spiritual, even political priorities. One is inside a blind spot. The storyline explodes. One’s sense of time explodes. What are we to do—Tolstoy’s question—explodes—becomes inconsequential just as it makes one simultaneously paralyzed with urgency.
Given that moral paralysis, how does one act?
It’s a hard question. Because it’s also an emotional paralysis. But, more than ever, the confrontation of poetry, the encounter with a subject—the act of poetry—brings me down to the question of how I have lived my life. To a crisis of accountability… So increasingly now, it’s a matter of using poetry to try to find a way to keep the proportions right, to not be overwhelmed by grief, horror, fear, shame, rage; to use this precious medium I trust to guide me to find at least a way to ask the right questions, a way to hold ‘reality and justice in one thought’—as Yeats admonished me to do when I was a young poet. And not to lose the capacity to experience beauty—I think always of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem ‘To Ryszard Krynicki—a Letter’…
we took public affairs on our thin shoulders
recording suffering the struggle with tyranny with lying
but—you have to admit—we had opponents despicably small
was it worth it to lower holy speech
to the babble of the speaker’s platform the black foam of the newspapers
in our poems Ryszard there is so little joy—daughter of the gods…
Earlier he says ‘too easily we came to believe beauty does not save’. And this from a man who really knew the hardship of resistance. So it’s hard not to listen to the warning of its amazing opening
Not much will remain Ryszard really not much
of the poetry of this late insane century certainly Rilke Eliot
a few other distinguished shamans who knew the secret
of conjuring a form with words that resists the action of time without which
no phrase is worth remembering and speech is like sand…
Our enemies are despicably small, but their actions are capable of destroying the earth now, not just civilization. So, like every poet writing today, what I ask of my poetic tools now feels more urgent than ever, what I ask of the blank page. Not just urgent, but baffling. I have never written so slowly—each poem an attempt both to try to understand how to reenter the current of existence with some understanding of what will suffice—what will permit one to go on as if there were a purpose—and to try to understand what poetry is for under these conditions. Every poet will decide this for themselves in this renewed emergency—and I agree with, and understand, those poets who feel the medium must be turned to activism. But then I hear, always, too easily we came to believe beauty does not save… I feel more blessed than ever to have this medium. I am about to learn a great deal about life, and about my art…
What can poetry do?
Well, for example, it can enact and, by enacting, question, the relationship of individual emotion to crowd emotion. Lyric voice—personal human voice—meditative voice—interiority, subjectivity—come up against the ‘voice’ of the more-than-human, other-than-human. The non-human speaks to us in many ways. Climate change is just one of the ways it is ‘speaking’ to us. Some of the ‘dark’ technology another. Mass extinctions of creatures and mass movements of refugees. The worldwide addictions to porn, opioids, snuff, ISIS. These are all forces moving towards us, through us, trying to speak.
Can you say more about those forces?
This is a large endeavor and I feel I have only just begun to enter its terrain imaginatively—so in a way I don’t want to articulate it too clearly for myself at this juncture. I am not the only, or best, reader of my own work, let alone new work, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. But there are many human epidemics occasioned by moral confusion, panic—the sense of compass-needle-gone—that the over-many humans on this planet experience as they intuit both extreme scarcity and uncontrollable acceleration into some kind of ‘end time’. I am not using this term in its religious context, though ‘the rapture’ and all other end-of-time narratives (including, some skeptics would say, nuclear or climate change scenarios and ‘the Singularity’) are indeed one of the ways some are trying to organize a conversation with the non-human, the atemporal. The truly anxious question, it seems to me, concerns how singular we are, or remain, or should remain, in relation to our communal predicament—our communal creation of this nightmare. There is no place to step out of it. We are totally interlinked in ways far less beautiful or spiritually advanced than we had imagined. This question underpins every other question. Ecologically, economically, technologically.
You’ve spoken to me before about that concept of ‘the Singularity’, or ‘technological singularity’, which I’d not encountered despite my frequent dips into science fiction. Debated among academics and futurists, it theorises how the arrival of an artificial superintelligence could prompt runaway technological growth, changing human society beyond recognition. How far does that vision—utopian or dystopian, depending on one’s point of view—inform Fast?
It’s not something I think about—except inasmuch as, unlike those who celebrate its incipient arrival, I am haunted by the sense that we did not have to go down this road, that we did not choose it, that forces within us and without us could have been checked, directed elsewhere and differently. That this is the madness of a swarm, of overpopulation, and of tools given the few that permit them to simply destroy what remains of human life as they are permitting and profiting from the destruction of the earth and its creatures.
Can you say a bit more about that ‘road’ we humans have chosen, as you understand it?
I mean that I don’t feel this is our inevitable fate. That progress is a fiction and an addiction like many other addictions. But the drug was distributed so beautifully. Was it first handed out by the enlightenment?—by which technology?—by which invention, ‘discovery’, ‘exploration’?—which currency?—agriculture? computation? The imagination of the future that settled agriculture necessarily awakens and sets in motion? Where was the moment we turned irrevocably? It’s an insane set of questions of course—everything is so interlinked and in every case most evolutions seemed ‘inevitable’. Descriptions of the advent of agriculture seem to scream out to ‘stop now’, but each technological development takes just enough generations to establish its belief system that any memory of a prior, or alternate, path is erased. Two lifetimes, and memory is wiped out. The new is the new normal. The soul resets. The body evolves. One cannot help wondering—if one is not utterly convinced that our newest technologies foretell a brilliant advance—how we could have gone so blindly out of control in relation to ourselves and our fellow creatures—from resources to population. Because we have also, in the process, made our own species begin to grow deranged.
Your poems have often spoken about how the seeds of destruction lie in human desire itself… I’m thinking of the flash of gold at the end of ‘The Dream of the Unified Field’, with its premonition of a new world ready for plunder.
I have felt it—and written from that feeling—all my life. And of course it’s impossible to pinpoint where the life-affirming instinct turns deadly. Life-destroying greed begins, shyly, beautifully even, as a much wished-for spark of curiosity. A tendril awakens in one, and reaches out, growing one, and it is, at the start, just desire… Then, at a certain point, as I saw in earlier poems—(you pick a good example)—the ‘old world’ sets sail towards the ‘new’. Now we are all in each other’s hands, and all in the disaster. Some much worse than others. And yet, even living in this palpable lateness now, I keep trying to remember that I have, each of us has, just these few minutes, each of us, these few allotted; can we not find a way—which is not filled with avoidance or self-deception or false consciousness—to be present and live and love existence? My husband’s face, the hawk just now sitting on that rail, this gorgeous sound of rain—how to honor them, be nourished by them, not stain everything with premonition, loss?
Tell me, how does ‘Cryo’—a poem that opens with the failed attempt ‘to listen. To nature’—relate to all this? How did the poem come about?
Well, when I am writing I am in these currents, writing perhaps from them somehow, but not thinking about them. Not at all thinking. Let me put it this way: I knew before it existed that I had one more poem to write for the book, actually I just had a feeling. Having had it during almost every book, over the years, I recognize it. It’s an unspoken instruction to just keep looking away from the book—trying to keep yourself in a blind spot.
Can you say more about that process, that need for unknowing?
You don’t want to write a poem ‘for the book’. You don’t want ‘something that ‘fits’. It’s not closural. It’s just… there is something that hasn’t happened yet, or, there is something I haven’t experienced yet. Blindness and negative capability. So by definition, in terms of volume of ‘voice’ and agency, it’s the least of ‘me’ that’s trying to find the poem. I kind of try to disappear from the activity of plumbing for it. It’s the opposite of, say, a poem like ‘Reading To My Father’—or any of the elegies in the book. It starts in a feeling that has no apparent occasion and no subject. Or the occasion is just a restlessness. An incipience. Like waiting for someone to come—but no one is invited or expected. You might as well not even be there. Except that you are. And it’s nearing the end. The end of something you lived. The end of a life. The end of the world as you know it. The end of what you thought was true, what you thought would ‘hold’, or hold true. I wish we had a word for endness. It’s not a clear-cut state, and yet it is nothing if not clear-cut. One feels the urgent necessity to get one’s self totally out of the picture. So it’s an interesting situation from which to write a poem. And in a book where, as you so well describe, the search for points of view to speak (or record) from has included every kind of ‘non-human’ position I could find my way to, it’s a good place from which to feel obliged to write. Once I started, the poem moved instantly to its uneasy reaches—this desire to remain in being without having to be. To live as a perceiver with no ability to act—no accountability. The desire to leapfrog history, current or imminent. Ethically it hit one of the outer limits of the book. I was pretty astonished when Julian of Norwich showed up…
I’m glad you mentioned Julian: her presence is yet another ghostly voice ‘Cryo’ incorporates into its own, albeit set instantly apart by her archaic spellings. Julian was a fourteenth-century anchoress and mystic. The visions recorded in her Revelations of Divine Love came to her during a period of serious illness (I can’t help thinking of your own recent illness), when she saw the broken and bleeding body of Christ appear at the foot of her sickbed: ‘blodlessehed and paine-dried within→ / blowing of the winde and colde coming from without→mete togeder in the swete / body→jittery→of Crist→of→’ What was it about Julian’s words that summoned her into this poem?
I really can’t say. Or I don’t want to trivialize the magic of it. I just suddenly heard her voice in my head and I knew she had entered the scene. The relationship of mortal materiality to immateriality in her experience of what is ‘lived’ life, what ‘eternal’ life, and what ‘after’ life—well that might make sense. But, as I said, she showed up like a stranger and walked in. Doesn’t that happen to you in poems?
It does! All the time, in fact. Fast is a book much concerned with death, or rather with dying—a distinction Wittgenstein pointed to when he said ‘death is not an event in life’, but one always just beyond its edge: ‘Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.’ Part of the work of this book, it strikes me, is the attempt to project yourself into that impossible moment of experience. If it’s not too painful, could you say something about the events—your father’s dying, your mother’s illness, your own cancer diagnosis—that led to writing this book?
As I learned watching my Dad, so up-close, death has almost endless stages. I tried to become as aware as, say, his dog definitely was, of all the gradations of holding on, and then all the slurring, sometimes jerking, sometimes sliding into letting-go. It was shocking. I could look at Dad and at the anthropocene as if with the same map of shatterings and denials and dissolutions and greeds. That affected the experience of writing the book—though so much else happening culturally, politically, affected me as well. The Snowden revelations. The movement of the Doomsday clock. The incredible narrowing of the climate change ‘window’. The passing over our 350 parts per million limit re carbon. The images given me to undergo by ISIS. The refugee crisis in the EU—in Lampedusa, Sicily, at the front line of the refugee disaster. I felt I was obliged to watch the Jordanian airman burn alive in his ISIS cage. I couldn’t bear it but I thought who am I not to witness to his suffering. The infants lifted out of the Mediterranean, friends in France full of rage and ready for Le Pen, ready to hate everyone… This is the world out of which poems arise. Poems are not ‘about’ this or that—except very occasionally. Yeats wrote out of Easter 1916, as well as once, memorably, about it.
Death seems to hover over the book in many guises, at many scales…
So, yes, death, and the death of the human—the wished-for ‘death of the human in us’—and perhaps ‘the death of the singular’ in us—or is it ‘the refusal of being singular’? (Large subject…) Along with the swarming sensation of anonymity, and the desire for anonymities increasingly available to humans via technology (a fascinating illusion because of course, without really reading we are being totally ‘read’). How encrypted can we be? I look at that word and it astonishes me—we want to be buried. One face of that (also pornographic) wished-for death of the singular is evidenced, for example, in ISIS recruitment. The destruction of Palmyra, the beheadings, the pulverization of the child into the child-soldier (as the worldwide trade in child porn as well as, increasingly, porn for children, evince) all enact a desire to kill off the human in one’s self. Feeling connected to the past, for example, is a large way one feels ‘human’. So being ‘post-historical’ and being ‘post-human’ and ‘post-nature’ are interconnected. The hatred and destruction of childhood or innocence is an essential subject. For those who see a cyborg world ahead, doing away with wonder is just as important as doing away with empathy. The human is hard to eradicate, but I must assume it can be done.
You mentioned feeling connected to the past, or memory, as a possible antidote?
Well, in trying to fathom rage such as that rage we saw in the attacks against Palmyra I tried to think about this… The sensation of deep past is very different from the sensation of personal past. It goes back to singular versus communal being. Communal memory is a strong force—with ethical power—to bind us to our humanity. It is obvious that it would be one of the first things under attack. It is also one of the wellsprings of poetry—and our long reach into it to keep awake is one of our major tasks. But this is almost overwhelming. I hope the book touches it, is sufficiently complex about it. I look at many of these activities—from the geopolitical, to the politics affecting one’s own ownership of one’s body—as potential acts of preparation for a kind of future where to be ‘human’ (emotionally) will be a liability. A pre-robotization of one’s self. There are major neurological studies on what the virtualization of the world is doing to our minds. The reduced or eliminated capacity for empathy is the biggest casualty in children.
Do you feel this a difficult moment in which to be writing?
I often tell young poets ‘no—this is a privilege—we have a particularly important job to do’. We are at a moment in history where a new technology turns our page. There are numerous such moments in history, but not many generations get to live and write in the actual ‘turn’—in the muscle of it—such as at the invention of gunpowder or the printing press or the discovery of penicillin or fission and the dropping of the bomb… I have been writing for a while now—through other kinds of time. And, as you mentioned, alongside these technological and cultural and ecological changes (which I have been taking on board in my work for some time) I’ve experienced, on a personal level, as everyone does at some point, a face to face encounter with disappearance—in my diagnosis, in the loss of my father and that of many close friends. So yes, that too. Mostly what one feels in death’s approach, or what I felt watching my father, is refusal and greed. By the time you get to memory, empathy—well, you’ve finally arrived, because you’ve reached the too late.
‘The bad news became apparent too late’, we hear towards the start of ‘Cryo’. Can you talk about that notion, the ‘too late’: it comes up a lot in Fast.
Yes. I groped around in that sensation a good deal in the book, the too late… Our time. To learn the feelings associated with this ‘too late’. Every life provides these instructions. They are not abstract. You can’t get them by studying, or in theory. You learn them by squinting-in, for all these gradations you discover, the astonishingly absolute cliff between being and not being—the extinction—but also how very long the approach to that cliff is, and that moment when you intuit it’s there, and when you begin to feel it exert its pull, and how slow, long, wistful, mesmerizing the falling off and down, is. It’s a long slow falling—with its refusals, its horrors and mysteries, this fall of ours. Downward towards darkness on extended wings we go. As loved ones and loving ones. In memory. In bodily disaster. As a species. As the witnesses—if we wish to be—to our destruction of other species. Of course this witnessing is tiring. And we spend too much time wanting to know if what we know is true.
How did this affect the entrance of other voices into the book—the ‘alien subjectivities’?
The whole mystery in the presence of death is the pretty stunning disappearance of many kinds of subjectivity—one’s interest in them, one’s belief in them—and the rock-face of the objective that you suddenly watch starkly emerge out of the fog. But one must understand and honor the weariness as well. One also just wants to say that’s enough, where is my day, I want my minute back, my day-full of minutes—my thing made of building-with-minutes, that rising sensation—futurity, expectation, growth—not all this dissolution. One tries to find the beauty—not easy. The wonder—easier. So, yes, the ‘I’ in this book also recounts its own ‘leap from one sort of being, one sort of being / immaterial to another’. One finds oneself to be, indeed ‘a possible alien subjectivity’. One wants so to continue to speak from a space beyond human life. One cannot believe voice, mind, soul will be snuffed. The body… well, as with our earth, we almost let it go without thinking—as long as we can keep thinking we will let anything material go, will abandon anything to keep the thing we call mind, or consciousness, alive. We go willingly into our virtual or cyborg states out of greed more than curiosity—just to not stop being. Or so it feels to me. But then the culture lusts for non-reality, even for its own spectacular non-reality. As if it could by such means escape mortality. As long as it can keep being part of the spectacle it will astonishingly willingly abandon its footing on the scree. I don’t exempt myself.
Where does poetry stand in all this?
Well, poetry, with its margin, is a reiterated instantiation of that cliff edge—and the breaking or not breaking as one goes over it. It is one of any civilization’s most ancient and mysterious means for shaping the very tension between rupture and continuity, so that one has to take the measure, in every line, of one’s nearness to the ‘edge’ while also conjuring and experiencing the fall, or perhaps leap, to what may lie beyond that edge. In that sense every succession of verses invents or models both death and resurrection. They are both rehearsals and survivals.
You mentioned negative capability earlier, in relation to this poem’s emptying-out of the self, its channeling of other perspectives. In its opening stanza, ‘Cryo’ plants ‘Empathy’ in the air, then circles back to ‘proto empathy’ (an intriguing distinction). It feels like empathy as a human project is having a crisis in our politics right now, both in the US and globally. Was that prospect already weighing on you as you wrote these poems?
Yes. Absolutely. We now have at least one whole generation in our midst—I can speak for the US—where technology and removal from nature of all kinds, removal from the experience of materiality, of three-dimensionality (perhaps a pre-requisite for ethical activity—a stage for self-reflection) has possibly interfered with the development of empathy. A generation, perhaps two, that have not only known only screens from the start—but a generation which Richard Louv long ago described (in Last Child in the Woods) often no longer raised, for example, playing any of the games humans have played from hunter-gathering to recently: hide and seek, catch—unstructured play, twilight play. Again such play appears to be necessary for building up—at a neurological level—an inner sense of a ‘stage’ on which one ‘acts’. You climb a tree. When you start up your hand goes to the ‘other side’ of the trunk and grips it—it does not see it, it feels it, it knows its grip will hold at that invisible point. I speak literally but hope this is clear metaphorically. I trust this intuition that the sensation of the ethical impulse requires the pressures of physical accountability—which means an inner life staged from the start in a three-dimensional world. Where one can see one’s shadow, as it were.
I’ve been alarmed recently by Paul Bloom’s arguments ‘against empathy’ as a guide to social policy, and am with the writers in that Boston Review roundtable who pick them apart. But is there any sense in which empathy could prove an obstacle? I think it’s grossly unfair, for example, to place a burden on people of colour or LGBT people to empathise with antagonists who would deny their basic humanity. How do we deal with the power imbalance seemingly built in to empathy as an endeavour?
The whole condition of empathy is much more complex and bodily and inchoate than the language we have for speaking of it. I like to try to stick with neurologists and how they study it—as a much more ancient and bodily state. Something the body ‘reads’ in itself. And empathy is not easy to ‘do’ as a sensation—which is where it needs to start. And it is even harder to ‘do’ as an emotion. I would argue that all this takes place in essentially subconscious (if not deeper) states. And in the senses. A feeling you might not even notice in the palms of your hands, in your gut, in the back of your head, inside your eyes where the desire to shut them resides in a nerve… It needs to take place at the level of instinct, long before emotional structures such as power imbalances can be felt or perceived. Long before anything cognitive occurs. That is too late. At that point it becomes a bit of a nonsense term—it is asked to coexist with a world in which emotion, for example, is expressed as ‘likes’. The herd instinct of ‘liking’ and being ‘liked’—that’s a substitute emotion, a mock emotion. It makes empathy impossible. As does the speed of that transaction. It’s too fast to be emotion, let alone sensation. Or more precisely, too fast to permit the experience which is an emotion to occur. You click the mouse. There, you have ‘liked’. But empathy needs time to rise up as a sensation, then as an emotion, as much as it needs materiality in order to be experienced. I am not you. You are not me. That gap. Crossing that gap. That is everything you need in order to begin to be human. It’s not easy and it’s not fast. We are getting rid of it, or, rather, bypassing it. Our technology and our spectacle abhors a vacuum and adores a bypass. Empathy is the seed emotion by which actual community is formed.
Have you ever made use of Facebook, or other social media?
No. But I used ‘liking’ as an example as there are current studies of it as a way of controlling people politically. It appears the alt-right used Facebook widely during this election in a vast experiment exploring how to use the psychology of ‘liking’ to control large groups. The studies explore how brain structure is being changed by the act of ‘liking’. Obviously the jury is still out on this. But Bannon won. At any rate, it very much interests me that such studies are underway. It makes human sense to me.
The restless shifting between singular and plural pronouns in ‘Cryo’—a ‘we’ and an ‘I’—seems to point to the book’s larger concern with human connection and forms of community. The comforting hand of the doctor holding your own in ‘Prying’ is one moving and hopeful instance of such contact, but other visions of human collectivity in Fast are more ambiguous. One that comes to mind is the recurring image of the online comment box, which at one point is even compared to bodies tumbling into a mass grave: ‘the just-dug pit / fills up like a comment box’ (‘From Inside the MRI’). Was the hijacking of ‘Below-the-line’ discourse by trolls perhaps what you had in mind here – a phenomenon Richard Seymour, writing in the LRB, has recently called the ‘dark side of online democratisation’?
That’s excellent. We should just print your questions! When Seymour says ‘It isn’t that the trolls care one way or another about the person who has died. It’s that they regard caring too much about anything as a fault deserving punishment’—that’s your answer, re empathy. The supreme currency of trolling is exploitability, and the supreme vice is taking anything too seriously. So by now the comment box’s dead bodies in their assigned slots (name, profile, pseudonym, username) make for an even wider estrangement from any semblance of a ‘whole’ body politic held together by cohering values or experience. We are dismembering. Is this a form of advance desensitization, people preparing themselves for a world where emotions are a severe liability? Empathy being just the most inconvenient.
Speaking of dismemberment and political bodies (one of the poems invokes ‘my body, my citizen’)—from the opening poem onward, there are so many hands in this book. A few examples:
about to touch
a quiet skin, to run along its dust, a fingernail worrying the edge of
air, trawling its antic perpetually imagined
end—leaping—landing at touch. A hand…
…Because I made it with my hands.
I made it all with these hands. It is not personal.
Standing next to you, holding the hand which stiffens, am I
outside of it more than before, are you not inside?
(‘The Post Human’)
These hands often seem almost cut-off from the bodies to which they belong, touching, gesturing and making with an independent agency. Touch is by far the dominant sense in Fast—why is that?
Yes, I was really surprised to find how many! I was going to add one more poem based on Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis—on a photograph of an Iguana’s chainmail-like gleaming arm and claw cropped off from the rest of the body—but I thought as I read through the whole book it had gotten itself done. I would have liked to have a creature in the book—an ancient one like an iguana. I would have liked to have had a maker, Salgado. I tried one more poem—Philip Guston appeared in it. Then I realized that this book had somehow moved beyond the ability to absorb particular historical ‘makers’, individual subjectivities of that kind. So this is post what now, I thought? Post-human seemed too reductive. Post-individual untrue, though at times I manage to glimpse it. Post. Just Post. Post us. And fast. Losing our place fast. Killing our place fast. Dying off and killing off fast. During the time it has taken to write this answer an elephant has been killed. No, not killed, slaughtered, tortured. (I think here of the joy trolls take in torturing the parents who have lost a child, a suicide…) By the bottom of this page a species we probably do not even know of will be extinct. How many will be killed by the time I have answered these questions. What are my hands doing here on these keys trying to really ‘feel’ your voice while I see the slaughter before me as if it were on the screen over these words?
It must be strange answering questions about the future and futurity at this very moment, just days away from Trump’s inauguration, after a week of what feels like unprecedented precariousness in US politics…
It’s crazy-making. I find it hard to concentrate, to sound an optimistic note, I admit. I keep thinking one has to wake up. But really, I fear we won’t. We must at very least try to be honest about our kind’s refusal. And take in how we will be looked back upon later on. The people who knew everything and did nothing. Too late to alter the course. While I am answering this question the head of Exxon is in the process of being confirmed as Secretary of State by the US Senate—I can turn up the volume on the TV and listen to him lie with impunity. And just today a judge in Massachusetts has finally permitted the release of documents proving the almost 40-year cover-up Exxon has run. So we’ve now got Exxon Mobil to run not only our foreign policy, but also our so-called energy policy, just as we cross the carbon threshold of 400 ppm. We can’t really survive in the long run at 400 ppm. Exxon—which is still now paying people to deny climate science they themselves have known is true for decades—has massively contributed to stealing the planet from every creature that lives on it. And 12% of the American people who bothered to vote just handed this country over to them. Bill McKibben is the one doing the important work on this. But I am speechless. The damage is so vast, on so many fronts.
‘I’ll nestle in unattainable / reality’: is Fast’s preoccupation with reality and truth a function of our so-called ‘post-truth politics’, or something wider?
First of all ‘fake’ is what it says. It’s what the Macedonian kids were writing for 60,000 dollars a year and posting on Facebook to great acclaim—influencing the US election. Indeed, they laugh at us—‘it is amazing—Americans will believe anything’—but it is true, ‘we’ will believe anything. It has nothing to do with being ‘post-truth’—a term we should perhaps not be throwing about carelessly—I see it everywhere and it makes me cringe. Fake news is an offshoot of the worldwide addiction to pornography. It is spectacular, it is addictive in similar ways.
Could you explain what you mean by that?
The texture of it, the tone, the tenor is built to be recognized by people increasingly addicted to violence. Increasingly, that violence is porn. So it’s not at all astonishing that many voters and even members of our new government would believe that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were running a child porn ring behind a pizza parlor in DC. If you move the needle along towards what we consider normal ‘news’ it is well known that it increasingly needs to be ‘pornified’—it needs to acquire more of those characteristics of fake news to even get a reader’s attention. No matter what the topic, the story, to capture a reader, has to be fast, slick, violent, sexy, flashy, all surface, catchy—what a phrase that is—reflective in the bad sense of that word.
Does this affect the art our culture makes, and is that a bad thing?
How could it not to some extent? Spectacle-art and news-product are aiming for the same limited time, and even more limited attention span and palette, of the same addicted consumers. Are we taking the measure of how much anxiety and sadness follows in the soul in the wake of speed and binge? Binge anything. I believe binge porn accounts for more internet use—across the planet—in all age groups—than Amazon, Twitter and Google combined? But this further changes our relationship to time—does it not? To mangle Pound, art now has to be ‘news’ that is always breaking. Quick, check, something has just happened, something is about to happen, you can’t miss it, you have to be there in it, with it, it in you, in real time. But no, you missed it. You are always too late.
You have spoken often about the spiritual power of the use of real time in art—notably in your Paris Review interview.
I was speaking then of ‘real time’ being inserted into a situation of fictive time—in film, painting, poetry. A fourth wall opening up into the sacred. I am not sure this current usage means the same thing—but now I find myself wondering how we became so addicted to the literal version of ‘real’ time. Where was it set in motion, this spectacle we cannot get enough of, cannot get out of?
Where would you place that origin?
Well, did it start for us where it is commonly placed—with the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald in real time on live television in front of the whole nation? Here in this colosseum it is hard to see outside the bubble—although it is what I am attempting to do, in part, in this book. But yes, watching people do anything ‘live’ (including commit suicide, have sex, kill, get killed) on TV, on the internet, from the privacy of one’s screen, is obviously one of the major forces behind both ISIS and the porn industry, as well as plain old live-streaming entertainment. Fake news, which relies on a shattered attention span, and people’s tremendous preference for it, is something to seriously think about. Because it has won the day—most educational strategies are too slow beside it; novels take too long; TV shows must be binge watched; this photo must be posted to FB the second you take it; mail must be read instantly… even its slowness so enervating we now have the nonstop ping of Whatsapp. No time must pass between emission and reception. There you have it again—encryption.
By that measure, is poetry fast or slow?
And yet in that instant ‘hookup’ I cannot help but notice how that also resembles the ultimate dream between any people—total communication. Isn’t that the dream, even between a writer and a reader, don’t you think? In spite of all we know that ‘knows better’, that is still the dream, isn’t it. Unmediated contact. With its eros. That in black ink my love may still shine bright… The ink still wet 408 years later—the lover’s words trying to be in the right now—right here—the still-shiny ink not yet even blotted, or dried by the passage of a single minute. How does this desire become the horrifying need—again a branch of porn—to photograph nonstop the sexual torture and violation at Abu Ghraib, for example? The torturers somehow helpless before the ferocious desire to record themselves in the instant. I am here. This is actually happening. How desperate we are to know ‘we are here’. Why this terror that we might find ourselves to be virtual, or about to dissolve, or not yet even coalesced. That we might not be real.
‘Photographs’, Susan Sontag says, ‘help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure’. Rereading On Photography today, I’m struck by how incisive it still seems in an age of digital and social media…
Insecure—yes—and also the sadness that creeps in alongside the excitement that attends the taking of a digital photograph. It’s a tiny emotion and one needs to bend-in close to discern it. You look at the face you love, you see it in your frame, you seize it, you look up, it is still moving, you look down, the one on your phone is now already too late. You try again. Always this sensation of not being able to still the thing. To capture it. So people now video everything—there you are, a minute ago, there we are. So why is it still not us—there—when we watch it. What is missing. Why is it back there when we are now here? These are apparently innocuous microscopic emotions these technologies breed in us. But nonstop. All day for many. And they fill us with subconscious sadness, then panic, even rage. What emotion is born out of always being told we are behind time by our fast device? We used to be able to feel we were in time. But now there is this new sickness in our relationship to time. Facetime. Skype. You are with me. No, you are as if with me. What horror is triggered in us by that as if. Horror vacui. Vacating the premises. This works to erase the function of memory—but that is a larger topic.
The displacement you’ve just described, is it at all related to the non-human voices that pour into Fast?
Fleeing the first person is not the same as letting the other flow into it, if that makes sense. When the seabed in ‘Deep Water Trawling’ first ‘spoke’ I almost dropped my pen. Honestly, I was scared because I didn’t know what to ‘say’, what there was to be ‘said’. So I kind of listened, maybe one could say I channelled—that would be apt. I know that something not my own subjectivity flowed in. Before writing this book I would have said (and have) ‘of course it is an illusion, but it is an operative illusion’. Now I am wondering whether the imagination might not have the capacity for such seepage—its technae perhaps not entirely tapped-out by us yet, three thousand years into this. And maybe, even more than language or imagination itself—the amazing instruments of form and syntax. They tap into non-human unknowns beyond.
‘Cryo’ alludes to the gap between ‘legal death’ and ‘information death’ (the theoretical point beyond which a brain and the personality it holds can no longer be revived by any future technology), which is where the hopes of cryonics hover. I was minded of the way Christian thinkers like Donne or Augustine dwelled on the opaqueness of the precise instant of death, supposing it to occur as swiftly and imperceptibly as the Pauline resurrection, in the ‘twinkling of an eye’. The impossibility of pinning down that moment, the ‘now’ of the soul’s separation from the body, led to all sorts of philosophical questions about time, and whether an instant is a part of time or not. Could you tell us more about the title of the book, Fast? Why did its pun on speed/starvation seem right to knit these poems together?
Great question. One of the ways we can feel most oppressed by the culture’s increasing addiction to speed is by thinking of how this accelerationism invades our way of experiencing time. It’s a condition which invites us to feel the ‘now’ as the only duration in which one can experience one’s self as somehow true, really there. This presentism starves one of an actual, slower, deeper, more complex and mysterious sense of self. Of course this also affects how we grasp an ‘other’. How little of you do I need, to feel I have ‘got’ you. How little time does it take for me have my ‘takeaway’. We now privilege information—the pseudo–sensation of information—over experience. Experience is slow. It unfolds over time. It changes its nature. Initiation is possible. Discovery. Mystery. Chance. Experience seeks transformation. Information flashes into the mind and basically starves out the crop of experience. It is a scarcity, and like most, born of greed.
The word ‘information’ (‘information death’, ‘brain information’) echoes in this poem, where it serves as a measure, if a rather bald one, of the distinctiveness of a human self. Information—why are we so hungry for it?
The seizure of information is shiny and meets instantly every quick desire. And it is thrilling. It is. Slow desire is more bodily, less psychological, capable of transformations that call upon intuition, might give rise to vision, presence, grace—all outcomes of that paying attention, that waiting and undergoing you had mentioned before as negative capability. Even in the mind experience is all about waiting and undergoing. It takes time. It knows how to plough time. Information-gathering would transcend time if it could; it is about bypassing. But here too we are addicted, and why not, to that speed. Here I am using it. It excites me. It ‘saves time’—though I look at that phrase uneasily as I type it… So there are two ways to reach that ‘twinkling of an eye’, that ‘now’. The instant itself, and then the instant as it becomes part of time by being lived-through, by then attaching to the next-on instant. The narrative which is a self-in-time occurs. You have to go there, it’s all pilgrimage. There’s a haiku by Issa I love and translated once:
The owner of the field
goes to see how his scarecrow is
and comes back.
There is so much of what pilgrimage is in this poem. The field, the going and coming back across it like the verso of the plough, the verse. The man and the stand-in. How you are not the same person when you come back as when you set off. Experience. You have to go and come back. You cannot not take your body. And that ownership is involved. You have to own yourself.
Does this bring us back to ‘Cryo’ and its negotiation between (to use Julian’s terms) the ‘bodely’ and the ‘gostly’?
The drama we undergo regarding desire is our desire to both be and not be at once in order to satisfy the powerful spiritual greed to ‘never stop being’. And further, as we approach the machinic, the question is how much will we sacrifice to that desire? Do we really lust for the safe-space of immortality—if that’s what it is—that much? Are we already now intelligent machines in ways we do not even realize, morphing, ready to give up this human version for one without all the sacrifice, initiation, transformation, mystery which we so willingly cast off for the sleek speed of total unmessy mentality? On the dark side of our entering the machinic witness the anonymous online post-humans who are homicidally violent against total strangers in pain, who taunt and hope to destroy them, because they regard caring too much about anything as a fault deserving punishment. Post-truths are ugly. But the desire to become machinic is hot in us. Sadistic and masochistic.
Probing the human experience of time is crucial to a poem like ‘The Post Human’, which is one of several moving elegies for your father. The poem places itself at his deathbed—the effect is electrifying, devastating—as if taking notes in the moment:
Standing next to your body you have just gone.
How much of you has gone has it all gone all
It has been just a minute now—I don’t want the time to go in this direction—it does.
Now it has been two. Elsewhere. Elsewhere someone gets on a train—
we’re almost there, a man says to a child,
prepare for landing, the fields are rushing towards us,
we are setting out with the picnic, the woods seem far but we have all day…
Now. Is that a place now. Do you have a now.
How many minutes have passed now.
The repeated ‘Elsewhere’ segues into a childhood memory of a train journey with your father. But what’s striking about that ‘Elsewhere’ is how it frames the past as simply another location in space, rather as it’s perceived (if you’ll forgive the sci-fi analogy) by Vonnegut’s timeless aliens. In Slaughterhouse 5, the Tralfamadorians experience space-time as a continuum they can move about freely, visiting happy moments as if they were physical places; to them, the unidirectionality of our human perception of time (‘I don’t want the time to go in this direction’) seems like someone strapped to a ‘flatcar on rails’. In writing Fast, to what extent did you have in mind tropes of time as explored in science fiction?
A lot. But I do believe you have practically answered your own brilliantly incisive question. So, first of all, I am trying to transcribe the incredible sensation one has as the person one has known as one’s father just goes—goes—and what is suddenly there is not there, is a thing for the embalmers and then the cremation oven. And yet the bed is still the bed. The trees are still out there and the minutes of noon passing over them, laving their branches at some precise degree of warmth. So where are we? How is time moving for him, or is he now it? How is it moving for them out there, the birds on their branches, or for the soil—its minutes passing through it. By the time I get back to me just standing there alone in the room in daylight with him the corpse, then it the bed, with its gleaming railings—well, where are we except in those time collisions and inversions science fiction seeks to make palpable and real. Because they are—it turns out—not ‘fictive’ at all. You stand there in these crazy temporal intersections and they are real, directions are gone, flatrail in every direction and no direction. Death seems to teach everything about ‘what is real’ excruciatingly accurately and fast and it needs no words to do so. The teachings are vertiginous. They make all our categories—‘fiction’, ‘science fiction’, ‘imagined’, ‘intuited’—feel totally wooden and slow and beside the point. Everything becomes believable—timelessness, time travel, resurrection, alien life, ghosting and direct conversations with the so-called dead. I think I tried for all of them. They seem part of nature to me now.
Writing about the way your poems periodically resort to blank spaces, x and y variables, unconventional punctuation, Dan Chiasson has suggested these sorts of typographic ciphers represent ‘intuitions that aren’t made of words, or not yet’. The arrows in Fast remind me of logic diagrams, flow charts, fast-forwards: how did you come upon them as a device?
One day a dash was followed by chance by that ‘greater than’ arrowhead on the keyboard and they snapped together and I thought—wow—what the hell happened there, the whole sentence just got sucked forward. I thought only the ‘sense of an ending’ towards which one moves—and syntax—could do that. But this was sadder, more indifferent, more sinister in some ways. And yet it had voice—which amazed me—and altered voice around it. So then, over the last five years, once in a while, during writing, arrows started up in a sentence and I rode them as far as I could. They kept getting more mysterious. But even as I use them, they always stop at some point and ‘standard time’ is restored, or even a new slowness. It’s very hard to generalize about and harder yet to describe. But I could feel it deeply—and how the equilibrium was gone. It was not a dash with its balancing, and its aside. This arrow just pushes forward. It insists. I don’t know about you, but I had not run into a piece of punctuation that could insist… So: dashes with a vector which adds velocity and an almost ruthless colliding onwardness. The arrow also stresses, or brings alive, current, not just adjacency or proximity. Paradoxically it’s almost the opposite of punctuation—punctuation usually demarcates whereas this just keeps sliding you further into the future. I guess I was thinking of how I hear Hopkins’s multi-hyphenates speeding towards a climactic ‘thing’. Also as a river sometimes accelerates—and in this book the river plays a large part. Sometimes the arrows appear—sometimes the current dilates and eddies and it’s another kind of time—and then the arrows stop because the speaker is more in control than the ‘current’ of the saying. I guess they are more like a musical notation where you don’t just speed up but you change the tempo, the temporality.
Do you feel this is a natural extension of previous such strategies—the blanks, the dashes, the brackets?
My relationship to the medium has always been one where I’m aware of the lyric’s capacity for slowing or dilating or even stalling time, so the arrows are a kind of wounding that pierces poetry’s ability to slow down and perceive. Or one has to keep perceiving up against the arrows’ drive. So that the poems have that elastic tension between the arrows, on the one hand, and that thickening or weighting that one feels committed-to in poetry. I guess I could say it’s like pulling against one’s own mastery, where one has to acknowledge the fearful acceleration involved in vision, but still try to find the right speed between lingering and hastening—the speed by which to enter time but not bypass experience. Somehow in answering you I can’t get love out of the equation. Is there not something erotic about the arrow—an ambivalence in the way the arrows take hold of a kind of longing while almost breaking into what they would reach?