An interview with Andrew Zawacki by Brian Teare
Brian Teare: Many poets feel a kind of fond embarrassment toward their first books, but it strikes me that yours is as unusually mature as it is assured, a coherent and ambitious aesthetic statement: “Not nails but the hammer,” the book really builds something durable and finished. How does By Reason of Breakings look to you from the vantage of having finished your third book? Do you see any contiguities binding it to your current work? What about its project seems quite alien to you now?
Andrew Zawacki: In some very crucial way, every last thing about each of the books I’ve written—“I” being a sort of placeholder at best, a convenience of language—is alien to me. My experience of writing is one of constant expulsion: it begins in strangeness, as the nearly blind pursuit of an unknown and unknowable articulation, and it ends in alienation, too, that is, without ever ending, as a continual dénouement, and certainly concludes without its author hanging around. I’m not there, in a sense, when it starts—writing has always already begun without me—and I don’t feel present when the poem, the sequence, the book is “finished”: writing insures that any closure of its possibilities entails the ejection of the one who called it quits. Even in trying to explain this, now, imperfectly and too summarily, I’m aware of doing little other than beginning to repeat a well-rehearsed set of post-structuralist tenets. It has never not seemed true to me, Blanchot’s elaboration of how a would-be author—who takes whatever provisional identity she can claim by reflection from the work, rather than the other way around—loses the power to say “I” from the moment writing is underway. Loses a notion of writing as “power,” period: there is no mastery or measurement when it’s a matter of writing; or, if the terms do still apply, it is writing that rules the writer, who is neutralized and can only speak in the third-person. When the work has been distilled into a published book, an impatient and arbitrary way of putting a provisional close on the ongoing process of writing, the work as such has already escaped this visible, public object, and the author is cast yet further aside.
All that merely to say that Breakings doesn’t necessarily feel any further away from me than Anabranch does, any less familiar than Petals of Zero Petals of One or even the manuscript I’ve just finished. The fact that Breakings is past revision now, printed between a pair of covers, complete with a bar code, price, and ISBN number, corseted in a (virtual) card catalogue, and ready for public consumption (or negligence), practically renders that book more accessible to me, actually: I know exactly what’s in there and have long since given up any hope of continuing to tussle with it—and what am I now, anyway, but just another member of the amorphous They who read or ignore or archive it? In this sense, I suppose there’s a kind of objective distance that has interposed itself between me, who is ongoing, and all my published books, as done deals or abandoned deferrals; whereas my latest poems, say, remain an open question toward which possible responses are still in effect, even if I know those responses will prove to be just as insufficient. One’s current poems are a much scarier but also more thrilling affair, then—they continue to change, do nothing but change, and I still have the illusion they stand a chance—while Breakings has no choice but to rest (restlessly, turning over in its grave) where I let it lie. Needless to say, I enjoy reading from Breakings more than from Anabranch, for instance, and wonder if this won’t always be the case: that the period immediately following a volume’s publication is when I least want to read (or hear) from it, and that the further in time I get from a book, the safer it is, because it’s that much less mine all the time.
I’m not sure I see this as a tragic set of circumstances, I have to admit, so much as an accurate account of the wresting and wrenching that writing does. Why write anyhow, if you know what the outcome is going to be, indeed that anything resembling an “outcome” will come out, and if you don’t plan to put “yourself” into question, as well? That would be to follow a program, not to enter a crisis, and a crisis requires decision, which means things might go badly. In that regard, it’s interesting you mention the word “project.” Whether “poetry” and “project” can be legitimately spoken in the same sentence is a contentious proposition—plenty of poets have no problem with the equivalence, or the parallel aspiration—, but the idea of making a project out of poetry would have been anathema, to me, when writing the poems for my first book. To a large degree I still find it difficult, in theory if not in praxis, to admit the legitimacy of a poetry rooted in project, but part of me is likewise trying to resist the Romantic notion (although it’s likewise present in much twentieth-century French poetics, with its privileging of l’éxperience) that by definition poetry escapes anything collusive with project: rationality, utility, history, predetermination, commercial exchange, the Hegelian dialectic tout court and its drive to achieve the Absolute. I guess my ideal—although the word returns me to Hegel—has become a conception of poetry that, broadly speaking, has an arc or even a haptic logic that is nevertheless alive to contingency, surprise, the flow of movements and morphologies that recalibrate and reroute themselves, even as they stay within loosely constructed limits. I think of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, Nathaniel Mackey’s pair of intertwined cycles, the late Gustaf Sobin’s “Transparent Itineraries,” Susan Howe’s investigations, Suzanne Doppelt’s recent work marrying photography and witty, philosophical prose, Inger Christensen’s formalist series, her reiterating It, Kevin Varrone’s g-point Almanacs, C.S. Giscombe’s ligatured Giscome Road and Into and Out of Dislocation, Rosmarie Waldrop’s prose poem triptych, Gennady Aygi’s projective and recursive fields, Ed Roberson’s scattered, scatted sequences.