An Interview with Brian Blanchfield by Ben Rutherfurd.
Ben Rutherfurd: First off, your debut book, Not Even Then, was published in 2004, and you recently finished a manuscript, The Understory. What sort of growth have you seen take place over the course of that interval? What happens in that time between the first and the second book?
Brian Blanchfield: It may be a question better left for others to answer. Or somehow it feels immodest to talk about one’s own development. I’ll say this. I wrote Not Even Then in my twenties, in New York City, where I lived for almost ten years, having moved there from North Carolina—I grew up in the central piedmont. It’s hard not to see your own book, however abstract, as an index of your life at the time you wrote it. And so it is, a book that, like myself at the time, is stunned by the self-consciousness living in a city brings out in you; it falls in and out of love, or buoys at infatuation level; it is anxious about self-sabotage; it has demons; it experiments; it treats chance or, rather, possibility as a kind of god (which is an excitement about poetic logic, and a night and day love of New York). Part of the book is in curious, loving tension with Hart Crane, who was bent on orchestrating a way for fleeting, sensational ecstasies to be lasting, eternal. Its own orchestrations are often metaphysical, beginning with a premise like: say there is a creature half-man, half-man; or, imagine the blank outcome in dominoes adds a seventh side to dice. So, it hustles and walks around a lot, returning glances, but it’s a pretty indoor book. Cognitive.
The Understory (a working title) I wrote in my thirties, after I left New York. It really came together during the three years I lived in Missoula, Montana. Quite a lot gathered there (in that valley) for me, and I had learned a lot, about poetry, about myself, about what to do with grief and loss and regret and anger (for one thing, go ahead and feel them). Now I’m not about to say this book is full of affective knowledge, of feeling; that’s not a book I’d really want to read. But, in contrast to Not Even Then, poems in this book do not really solve for x as metaphysical poems do. I’m not doing much of that kind of deliberation now. I’d say this manuscript is more concerned with American cultural politics writ large, broader in reach, clearer, queerer, more experienced, more conscious of lyric and conceptual traditions; if still urbane, then more upcountry and itinerant. If still theatrical, then maneuvering more in a spatial theater, particularly in the clearings, glades and basins of the idyll-worthy mountain west.
The landscape of the valley is a player in this book and changed its scope; it has a way of subtending this book, perhaps as the city underwrote the last one.
I’ve also read (and taught) a great deal in this interval that deeply mattered to me, that surely altered who I am as a writer. At different times, I’ve been deeply invested in Sir Thomas Browne, Marianne Moore, Guy Davenport, James Schuyler, Laura Riding, William Wordsworth, Samuel Beckett, Christopher Isherwood, Edward Dahlberg, (I think I just made a fussy-to-messy spectrum). The work of my friends and living heroes challenge and influence me too: Merrill Gilfillan, Eileen Myles, Cecil Giscombe, Gerrit Lansing come first to mind.
BR: Clearer; upcountry and itinerant; maneuvering in a spatial theater—I certainly agree with those descriptions. Also, many of the poems return us to an idyllic setting, maybe an idyllic sensibility, but with a surprising intellectuality which welcomes diction and associations that (one would think) don’t belong there. You mention Marianne Moore as one of your heroes, which is interesting because I have been thinking of these poems as a mix of Marianne Moore’s erudition and a sort of Keatsian romanticism.
BB: Yeah, for a couple of years now, I’ve been interested in the idyll as a form, the earliest instantiation of pastoral poetry, which is maybe the most mutable of any poetic subgenre. I happen to think Gwendolyn Brooks’s urban Bronzeville poems are pastorals in the idyll sense—interrelated persona poems that “drop in on” one protagonist or storyteller at a time, deeply underway in some scene, together gathering into a community or village. But so is Rufus Wainwright’s cover (with Sean Lennon) of The Beatles’ “This Boy” (Ringo’s cobblestone-kicking walkabout song in A Hard Day’s Night), performing and lamenting as it does the exchangeability of men as lovers. A fictive scene, persona (a “representative shepherd,” to use some critic’s coinage), amative and coltish male sexuality, a collection of discrete stories or poems that together create a milieu, even the sense of aerial vantage “onto” the scene: these are tenets of early pastoral poetry. And, right, the fantasy or construction of some perfect place: an outcropping of rounded rock in a grassy, sunlit hillside, as custom had it. The locus amoenus. I’ve been somewhat consciously reclaiming from the idyll something for myself, direct from Theocritus (Robert Wells’s translations are great poems). I suppose since I was living in the setting (on certain summer days, Missoula’s rolling hills are bucolic: indeed a shepherd drives a flock across Waterworks Hill, where I used to hike), I wanted to experiment with the sensibility, as you say. Vantage had a lot to do with it, and I like the sense of tableaux happened onto, where some small human story is ongoing, like a detail from which you might extrapolate the larger legend or mural.
As for the odd introduction of intellect in the idyll, you’re right—that is the opposite of what one expects in the pastoral mode, which by definition evokes a simpler life and time. (Andre Furlani has a chapter in his excellent book on Guy Davenport about the implausibility inherent in the pastoral, including the convention of the young, lissome, charismatic, literate, curly-haired, sophisticated, randy shepherd-speaker himself.) I think you’re probably referring to the middle section of the book, the series called The History of Ideas, 1973-2012. At the time I started these—maybe four years ago—I remember contending with the limp commonplace trotted out in a review of John Ashbery’s poetry that it is “a landscape of ideas”: what might that look like? In a chuffed mood, I started writing these twelve peculiar idylls imagining the recent history of an idea as a landscape. I had fallen in love with this five-volume reference work called The Dictionary of the History of Ideas, which was published in 1973 (the structuralist gumption that an entire cultural epistemology could be accounted one idea at a time in a single work was astounding, and says a lot about 1973 I think) and I wrote poems that each began with a formulation of fact from the Dictionary and concluded with some aphorism from a present-day popular thinker: Jill Bolte Taylor, Malcolm Gladwell, Antonin Scalia, Thomas Friedman, Temple Grandin, Kenny Goldsmith. Along the way I decided that the milieu between the two quotes, between the two eras, would be a kind of scene in a landscape; I borrowed Ashbery’s “we” (a band of pilgrims or outlanders or belated arrivistes always finding themselves all of a sudden at a brook or in a landscape painting), and then other constraints arose as guides and guardrails. The series became a procedural project, conceptual in that sense as well. So if there’s a strange erudition amidst the groves and tarns (Marianne Moore does herself appear in the one on “Empathy” along with Polyphemus), their parameters may account for why. Maybe they’re like little speculative updates on the history of education, alienation, casuistry, or time, since 1973. The wager is that anyone born then is an authority on what’s happened to an idea since.
BR: One aspect of your writing that seems to have remained consistent is what I’ll call an interrogation of the sentence. Instead of paring your poems down to fragments, for the most part you’ve gone in the opposite direction, stretching the syntax as much as possible while still committing to the rules of grammar. Much of the drama is in watching the intricacies of a sentence unfold against the line breaks.
BB: I do find a lot of movement and drama in the sentence—surrender, resistance, quickening, protraction—and a lot of musical possibility. Carl Phillips was a teacher of mine: subject-verb agreement, when you find it, is part of the payoff in his slender, tortuous poems; I wouldn’t be surprised if he has developed a subordinate clause in his snore. (I’m not saying Carl has a snoring problem.) Some longtime and recent favorite poems (including Carl’s “Corral,” Schuyler’s “A Stone Knife,” Jennifer Moxley’s “The Fountain,” or D. A. Powell’s “republic,” for instance) would be much less compelling if they weren’t managing and coursing a complex syntax in twisting, suspensive poetic lines—and offsetting it with lots of sentence-length variation and any little gonging impact in diction that can be orchestrated. I think you just have a feel for it. I jotted in a notebook something attributable to Rachel Blau DuPlessis: “negotiating segmentivities (line and sentence) is the practice of poetry”; I like that. It’s traditional to think more of line breaks, interruptions, ruptures, in poetry; but the reading experience is arguably about repair, not breakage; and it’s syntax that we’re anticipating, that we’re concerned to bring together. There’s pleasure in that.
That’s not to say that I always prefer poems that seem spoken rather than built, if that’s a reasonable binary. Giscombe, Gilfillan, Lansing, among poets I’ve already mentioned, construct poems I think. What often doesn’t measure up for me, as a reader, is a poem that in its fragmentation doesn’t utilize or even much reference the sentence: the impressionistic stack up of noun phrases or participial phrases for instance. It usually creates a hesitance or even a reverence for something ineffable in the subject matter. It beholds. I’m not a great fan of the ineffable in poetry. Eff it already.
BR: Since you mention what does not measure up for you, what does? What do you want to find, be it in a single poem or a collection? And are there any younger, first book poets whom you are particularly excited about?
BB: I think I’ve mostly learned my lesson about setting out or articulating criteria a good poem ought to meet. I’ve been surprised often enough, particularly as an editor at Fence, by poem after poem that I loved immediately and thoroughly whose qualities I would not have included in any categorical definition of a quote unquote successful poem. You learn to admire when a poem is an achievement on its own terms, maybe especially where you can tell those terms are not entirely borrowed. And, in reading six thousand poems a year, as the other poetry editors and I do, you certainly know when you come to a poem that really re-positions you, that obliges or elicits something in you, demanding that you participate in the coming together of the poem. It reminds me of Muriel Rukeyser’s little “choose your poet here” injunction. Should I quote the whole thing? “Remember what happened to you when you came to your poem, any poem whose truth overcame all inertia in you so that your slow mortality took its proper place, and before it the light of a new awareness was not something new, but something you recognized.” As uncomfortable as I am with the word truth in that formulation, and as ennobling as it all is, something like that happens for me as an editor every issue. And the poems that do that, that get inside and attune the reader like an instrument, are themselves really varied and, yes, frequently by poets who (like myself) may not yet have multiple books. In the last few issues, I have been spun around by individual poems by Ana Božičević, Adam Fitzgerald, Shane McCrae, Christopher Salerno, Steven Alvarez, Danniel Schoonebeek, Lucy Anderton, and others.
BR: To go back in time for a moment, can you explain when and where your interest in poetry began? I know the story, but I’m interested in what early fascination has remained with you.
BB: I’m not sure what story I’ve told you. That is to say, there are a few sources of my interest in poetry, which was unlikely from the start. My parents were not readers when I was young, and I developed no particular interest in literature until late in high school, where I had a terrific English teacher, who has become a friend in recent years. My first deep discovery of poetry was in a research project I undertook on Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, and I remember my love was for the patterning and systemicity among the poems, and the orgasmic energy cresting throughout. That was formative. I think I was sixteen. It seemed like a book you could live in.
I was writing poems by the time I got to college, but the friends I had there by sophomore year were my first intimate relationships, quite a tangle of them actually, and I often say I would not be a poet were it not for the oddly timed advent of widespread email (via tel-netting) at the University of North Carolina in 1992 or thereabouts. It opened up an entirely new channel of communication we were thirsty for. My friends and I, who were in introductory poetry and literature classes, would see each other several times a day, but we had maintained and relished a complex life running beneath the surface life: in these composed notes, highly charged and highly artful gossip and confessions, coded but uninhibited, shorthanded and absolutely maximized to quicken one another’s hearts and race intellects. I can remember loving nothing more than logging in in the lab to see what effect I had had on Brenda or Dan or John or Kelly or Rahul, or what they would return to me. I grew as a writer with them. (Rahul is Rahul Mehta, the fiction writer, author of Quarantine.) I really think adding the send function and the general surreptitiousness to the artful document that might metabolize some event or observation from life was the necessary mechanism that made poetry for me what it was for Frank O’Hara, between two persons rather than two pages. That’s what I loved.
I could also add that the elaborate maps I made as a little boy (my father was a long haul truck driver and I think it was a practice of taking control where I had none, over his absences), maps which were weirdly chance-generated (etch-a-sketch with eyes closed, for instance) and then meticulously transferred onto taped-together pieces of paper where place and world could be invented, seem to me now related to what later became the energy of poetry for me.
Or, for that matter, in my early twenties, a conviction that came out of seeing a dance performance by Mark Dendy at the American Dance Festival where I was volunteering, understanding in some rare clarity that I wanted in poetry the equivalent of the simultaneity of meaning he was able to offer more fluidly than I had ever known a body could. This has been reinforced over the years by other dance performances by Elizabeth Streb and Brian Brooks companies and Ballet Frankfurt and Deborah Hay and others.
BR: I’m interested in how your newer work is, as you say, “maneuvering through a spatial theater,” and what this has to do with place and movement. I remember sitting in your poetry workshop as an undergraduate, listening to you read a poem by Merrill Gilfillan and, afterwards, remark on the way his movement through physical space is almost always subtended by movement through abstract/conceptual space. Some of these new poems of yours return me to that discussion. Furthermore, your manuscript is titled The Understory. So there are two stories, two lines of progression, two kinds of movement?
BB: “Understory” does, I suppose, have a connotation of “sub-text,” a story running under this one, and I’m glad for that interpretation; it’s fitting. But understory is also an ecological term, botanical: the bottommost layer of forest growth, the fern and moss and groundcover layer that proliferates early and late in the season, when the canopy overhead is patchiest and sunlight can shine farther in. That’s The Understory.
So, there is an us-down-here aspect of the title, perhaps—on the ground, in the weeds—and a speculation about and occasional attainment of supervisory position (in the form of a toy train operator, a map user or gameboard player, a bridge, or the meteorological inversion layer that covers a valley for an entire season). Maybe related, there is a theme of fatherhood and fathers: watchful, powerless, cruel and frail.
I think I remember that day in class. We were reading and talking about the poems Merrill Gilfillan calls his “ballads.” “Ballad Circumstantial.” “Ballad Calcareous.” I think it was “Ballad Abstract” we were discussing, from Small Weathers. In those poems, his “alfresco writing,” we are outdoors, usually at an inauspicious, low, but highly particular place often at water’s edge somewhere in the High Plains and tabulating what the place contains, and what moves through it: avocets in mud puddles, trash upriver, shrikes come down from higher elevations, but also snippets of anecdotes remembered and recollections of friends and facts of history or astronomy. So the speaker or the position of the poem is stationary and the account, the inventory of the genius loci, includes the transit-through of all subjective associations and memories. I’ve since interviewed him for Chicago Review and so I know now that he calls these his “days-in-place” poems. With the constraint that they emerge from one and only one day in residence at that site. What I really learn from Gilfillan is in the way he fits a poem together, with very little management or rhetoric. In our interview, we called it “joinery.” I aspire to it, and there’re even a few poems in the collection that are homages.
BR: You seem to champion the collaborative project, and I know that you are currently at work on one. You’ve also brought your work to other artistic genres—for instance, dance. Was this also a collaboration with others? I’m curious how that experimentation has affected your writing, and how the “tenets” of one artistic pursuit begin to manifest in another.
BB: It’s an interesting question, and talking about it sews something together for me. My early conviction, watching Mark Dendy, that there are compositional affinities between dance and poetry spiked again when I was asked in the summer of 2008 to perform in my friend Jesse Aron Green’s dance video installation, a single-take, 90-minute piece with sixteen male performers (we were quite a range: several of us were untrained and nonprofessional, but we included exquisite dancers with the LA Ballet and punk sex-club burlesque performers, go-go boys). Jesse is a bit of a mastermind, a great director, and it should have surprised none of us that the piece would be included in the Whitney Biennial, and then show at the Tate Modern in London and the ICA in Boston and I don’t know where else. I won’t try to explain the piece itself (though to give a sense: we were on sixteen individual wood palette stages laid out in a grid and we performed a series of bizarrely rigorous 19th century exercises designed in Austria for men and boys), but because it was important for us to be aware of synching up with and mirroring and silently remarking the movements of one another, we trained for a while with Jesse and a great choreographer Hana van der Kolk in something called Viewpoints choreography. In Viewpoints, you enter a movement field—a dance studio maybe—and you might have a limited number of decisions you can make as a mover: only right turns; sit, stand or walk, etcetera. More agency is permitted as the exercise develops. With other movers in the field, you grow aware of the influence of other bodies, other strokes on the canvas as it were, the availability of face-offs and pursuits and tempo changes and micro and macro patterns.
I don’t know, it was enormously generative for me. A set of constraints, a given field that was—as my friend Thomas recently put it—a place in the first place, a permission to make impulse-based courses through that field, a system of likenesses and differences; and then press go, capture outcomes. It seemed to me to work as poetry can. With my dancer-choreographer friends back in Missoula, Anya Cloud and then Jes Mullette, I devised these all-day movement and writing workshops, where essentially we added an element to the Viewpoints exercises: having left the movement field, on the sideline, you take up a notebook and a writing exercise that used the fluid resource of the ongoing movement as a prompt. The writings would then prompt or motivate the movement in the next phase and so forth, in alternating fashion, with minimal direction. Anya and I called it From A to B and Back Again. It was like unending procedural art, or adult play, and the players were just really game. Sandra Alcosser was one of the movers in our first workshop; she told me afterward that she had orchestrated something similar with Leslie Scalapino once. And the writings that emerged we worked on and shared later. One of the “History of Ideas” poems came out of that workshop, and maybe a fair amount of what we’ve been calling the sense of “spatial theater” in my recent work.
Poetry has a tendency anyway to be reacting to or metabolizing something offstage, in the mind’s eye or what have you, so when the reaction is to another creative force, partnering and countering, it can be really dynamic. I love it. I’m writing a series of poems with Richard Siken right now for a British magazine, and figuring out how to loosen authorship and intention and turn and be turned by the other driver is something we discover as we go. I’m going to miss Wednesday nights in “Corinth” (a working title) when we finish.
BR: The Understory opens with a poem that takes its title from Eve Sedgwick’s non-fiction book Touching Feeling: “Paranoia Places its Faith in Exposure.” You also express, in the recent dialogue with Maggie Nelson in Evening Will Come, your concerns about the ethics of importing that kind of technical language, an episteme, into the grammar of poetry. This is surprising to me, since your work seems so willing to reach outward and draw from other dialogues.
What exactly makes you hesitate to steal Sedgwick’s episteme? Is it a fear of mishandling an idea? Do poets have a responsibility to ideas? We seem to be immersed in a culture where, because of the availability of information through modern technology, so many separate dialogues inevitably come into contact, or fuse, with one another. I wonder if the difficulty lies not in the fact that one is dragging an episteme into a new grammar, but that one is fusing together separate functions of the same language, i.e. the “philosophical” with the “poetic.” Where, for you, lies the problem?
BB: I think I came up against an uneasiness borrowing the Sedgwick line because I was repurposing a formulation that was an incitement in its original context, one I believed in. In "paranoia places its faith in exposure" is an admonishment, meaning more or less: it’s not enough to prove an underpinning ideology in some act we witnessed or suffered, “just as we suspected,” etcetera; the responsibility for change or remedy comes after a fear is proven reasonable. I had copied out the line on the same page in which I was writing what became this short poem about finding, being found, attuning, being picked up: fugitive little love overture its recipient recognized as such.
It is a small anguish, ultimately. I mean, poetry is often alchemical in its methodology, and sparrows build their nests with the shredded dissertation in the open recycling bin. My friend Christian Hawkey once enabled some such similar birdwork in his backyard one spring, in Brooklyn, leaving out the tatters of a critical study of Aphra Behn or someone, to see it braided in with the dried grass and nettles atop the fence. It worked. I got him to tell me while we threw darts how he had brought the art about. Christian Hawkey: bird collaborator.
We want to say that the poet is not indiscriminate in what he or she selects from the field and braids in, tests against and tethers with other items and lines, but neither is the sparrow. I’ve always liked Kant’s definition of beauty: purposiveness without purpose. And also Baudelaire’s: misfortune exteriorized. Are they opposites?
Here in Tucson where I’m spending some of the summer, there’s a business with a storefront I’ve passed once or twice, called Mendel’s Wife. Do you know it? Weird. It seems like half of a dark joke. Is there an episteme in there? I love it. I don’t yet know what kind of outfit it is, what service it renders, and I haven’t looked up whether the geneticist monk had a wife, or what she did, what name she made for herself while he was recording the reproduction of peas. On the day the monsoon really broke here, and my boyfriend and I were fast-skype-texting our impressions in different rooms while the rain poured on the roof, and Mendel’s wife worked her way into our exchange, a poem began to happen—we may work on it some together, and something fun or even quite significant may develop. But, in the “information age,” with answers at our fingertips, I find myself increasingly drawn to prolonging the speculative phase, before one knows if there was a Mrs. Mendel. So, in this poem-to-be, technology was used to aid its construction but not to advance its constructiveness. Know what I mean?
(I wrote Christian to verify the Brooklyn bird collaboration, and from Berlin he wrote back to say that it was not sparrows but a squirrel that shredded the text, and worked it not into the fence but the bark of a tree; and not for a nest, but for whatever reason it is that squirrels stash bits of paper in a tree. Oh, and it wasn’t a dissertation on Aphra Behn; it was a dictionary. As he puts it “he basically repurposed the book back to the tree, including the word ‘tree.’”)
BR: How, then, does that abstinence from outside information relate to the process of your nonfiction pieces?
BB: Information-abstinent. I like that, though it sounds very Sarah Palin. The prose project I’ve been writing for the last couple of years, Onesheets, has as a built-in constraint the suppression of the internet, and every other source besides myself. I have written essays on owls, Sardines (the hiding game), Completism, Man Roulette, foot washing (the sacrament), propositionizing (the linguistics term), Br’er Rabbit, tumbleweed, Janko Tipsarevic (the tennis player), withdrawal, etcetera. It’s a real miscellany. Part of their pleasure for me is that I offer only what it is I know, estimate, remember, or misremember about a single subject, thinking through and treating its significance, unpacking its freight and some of mine as well. They are essayistic in the most traditional sense, and non-academic in nature.
BR: So these Onesheets are really a way of remaining within that speculative phase you mentioned. This limit you place upon the work, that your memory be the only source, does that not become a liberation rather than a constraint?
BB: In a couple of respects, yes. It helps me to give up the responsibility of participating in a discourse, of being airtight, of having the choicest examples from the text or whatever to support a claim. I don’t want to prosecute in prose; I want to explore. I think I can be more connective and a little more fleet in the connections if the associations I make are among things I’ve read or seen or experienced and call to mind. I mostly choose subjects that I know are rich for me, but not in ways I fully understand until I begin writing.
Also, these are—by their nature—revealing little essays, so it feels more appropriate and more honest to present no findings other than my own, you know? I started them as an early morning practice just to get into language before the day had begun, and at the top of the first one, as silly as it sounds, I wrote “A Page on Owls, Permitting Shame, Error, and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” And that has been the formula ever since, with its perforce invitation to find the personally vulnerable place within the phenomenon or thing I take on and, you know, be equal to it. My friend Sam just said they are a wash of self acceptance, and that was so nice to hear: another way my thirties differ from my twenties. There is something therapeutic about them. I don’t quite know what they amount to. I don’t have to know yet.