An interview with Andrew Zawacki by Brian Teare (page 2)
BT: The poem “Argument for an Elemental Aesthetic” comes close to enacting a kind of ecopoetics in that it examines the uneasy relationship between industry and ecosystem. Its language attempts to situate us where
but diesel & disarray,
when brakes refuse braking
are limits assumed
as instance of incompletion
not its cause:
to a claywash crease
bootjack hill glisted sere,
by ground that does not guess
or let them go
Additionally, the book’s second section—the prose series “Mise en scène”—actively negotiates the difficult ethical interrelationship between observer and landscape. Its language beautifully enacts residence: “To walk out here is to assume a cartographer’s twitch.” Did you at the time hope an ecopoetics was at work in the book? Do you see one at work there now? Or would you frame the observer/landscape relationship via a different set of critical and conceptual questions?
AZ: If there is an ecopoetics awander in my first book, I’d have been unaware of it, and incapable then of stating what an ecopoetics might be. And while ecopoetics has been very much on my mind over the past several years—I just taught graduate and undergraduate seminars in ecopoetry at Georgia—, to place such a critical frame around those poems, ten years out, would be false, if I were to do it: my concerns at the time, as I remember them, were too—I don’t know—metaphysical, for lack of a less loaded word, to constitute an authentic ecopoetics, which has at its center the substance of the world as such and the impact, salutary or sullying, made upon it by its citizens, who are constituted by that earth. If it’s any indication of where my ambitions were leaning as I conceived Breakings, the poets whose work most obsessed me were John Burnside, Charles Wright, and Aleš Debeljak. (“Mise en scène” is dedicated to Aleš.) Each has a strongly developed sense of landscape in his work, to be sure, but whatever these writers may think or have said about their own writing, the situations grounding their poems are only partly that, only partly ground: their eyes are often trained on the blade-edge of the horizon, and farther.
That was true of my own work, as well: however adamantly placed in a physical scene, however vivid and vital the natural contours, the industrial debris, I registered those scenarios only insofar as they provided an occasion or an atmosphere to stage arguments I was trying to have with myself, with the spiritual alterity I was slowly and unsurely losing contact with, and to some extent with the woman I found myself being unhappily distanced from. So I saw that stuff precisely as “stuff,” to the extent that it comprised an objective backdrop in my viewfinder, which in turn was looking for something else, something perhaps invisible or only half-glimpsed; and at the same time, I didn’t see the world sufficiently as “stuff,” as a real garden cultivated with real tools, bearing real food for a real community, a place in its own right. Having said that, I was acutely aware, when starting Breakings, of provocative similarities and differences between and across landscapes.
To begin at the beginning: I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania, in a town called Warren, which had once been a rich, thriving hub thanks to its proximity to the Erie railroad, coal mines and steel mills in Pittsburgh, the industry two world wars necessitated, the discovery of oil in nearby Titusville, its own forests and other natural resources. The exterior plates for the arch in St. Louis were forged there, at Struther’s Wells, and the plastics manufacturer Whirley’s is likewise located in Warren. For as long as I’ve known it, though, it’s been very much a town on the economic wane, and I’d always had the sense that I was living in a place that used to be somewhere…important. But that fragility had the effect, in turn, of making it poignant to me: it announced elegy at practically every corner, if not a fantasy of impending renewal, and I grew up with a kind of nostalgia for a boom town I’d personally never known. (There are other poets to come out of Warren, including Julia Wendell and Katie Hayes.) But my sensitivity to its vulnerability has never really diminished: I graduated in a high school class of half or even a quarter the number of students in my parents’; Struthers and other steel manufacturers disappeared, either bankrupt or obsolete or bought out; the clothing store my grandfather managed, where I worked one Christmas break in college, folded; the company for which my father worked, founded at the turn of the century, has had trouble staying afloat, has laid off many employees; even the Kinzua Bridge, which I used to make my parents take me to visit, collapsed a couple of years ago, as if the elements were confirming the economy. The environment around Warren is intensely rural—trees, lakes and rivers, the Allegheny Mountains, state parks, lots of fishing and hunting, hiking and camping—but also heavily industrialized, with the National Forge and other plants in the area. So these issues, integral to ecopoetics of course, were undoubtedly at work in me.
The other thing gnawing and nourishing me was an experience of awayness, of anotherwhere: putting the context itself in context, if you will, as well as putting everything out of context. I’d spent two years at Oxford, followed by a third in Scotland, before going back to the east coast for a while, working construction and demolition sites for my uncle and staying at some writers’ residencies. During that entire spell I traveled a lot—the former Yugoslavia, Israel, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Hungary, Austria, Micronesia, France—, places that, collectively, were attuning me to their divergences and, more unsettling, their convergence. What all this meant is that, on one hand, national borders were getting reinforced in my mind: I was in Scotland during the drive toward devolution; monitored the Bosnian elections in ’96 and, months later, visited a Belgrade suspicious of Americans; constantly exchanged money and languages (not to mention a frequent dearth of both); fought jetlag; thought about Saddam Hussein and weapons inspectors in Iraq while hanging out in Budapest; studied each local yokel and sophomorically tried to blend in everywhere—etc. On the other hand, more provocative for me, the landscapes sculpting these places grew fuzzier, more fissured or porous or plural, until it was as if I were continually moving in a place that moved continuously. If this were supposed to be a classic Die Wanderjahre (and I did think of it that way, grandly), I was certainly not “finding myself.” Quite the opposite: I felt less and less like me, until I wasn’t I any longer, and the landscapes were losing their respective singularities, too. I recall, for instance, wanting nothing to do with proper names in my poems: they seemed like a lie. Alastair Reid’s Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner, with its distinction between traveler and tourist, said a lot to me about the bewildering condition I’d adopted. I appreciate that you mention “residence,” but my experience was more one of residue, and the epigraph from St. Augustine about fraying wasn’t coincidental in that regard. I felt very much on the move and, as my departures and destinations blurred together and redoubled, so many simulacra of other simulacra would appear.
I remember interviewing Scottish poet Douglas Dunn, one of my teachers in St. Andrews the year I wrote most of “Mise en scène,” and he mentioned the extreme difficulty of writing poetry about a milieu without freighting it with any “predicament of self” (I believe those are the words he used). For a long time after I couldn’t help but hear that comment (selfishly, since he wasn’t talking about me) as a rejoinder to what I was attempting to do, which did involve myself. Since then, among my most palpable experiences of my own poetry has been watching, as in a film, the background slowly become the fore- and, in conjunction, what I thought primary gradually dissolve to an enveloping haze. I began “Mise en scène” in Scotland in fall ’96, but I distinctly remember driving along route 80, across Pennsylvania, later that Christmas break, and I probably stopped a dozen times along the way to take notes on locales I would have seen growing up but never really noticed. Many of those showed up in the series. In other words, the periphery turning central, or geography declaring itself as the subject, not merely as an object to ballast some other need of the poem’s—or of mine. “Masquerade,” the backbone of my second book, was far more consciously invested in what you refer to as “the uneasy relationship between industry and ecosystem,” as was the “Arrow’s shadow” segment of Petals, and the poems I’ve been working on over the past three years, a book-length text called “Videotape,” are explicit about that engagement.
I’m much more invested in ecopoetics as such now, albeit one wanting to think the electronic as a crucial—and not always destructive—part of our human ecosystem. I am not quite so enamored of the landscape’s recurrence, across space and time, as I once was, although I can’t stop seeing it and continue to be fascinated by the graftings, double exposures, and superimposed visuals of physically separate locales. My focus has shifted to the flattening, the sameness of commercial zones, the society of the spectacle, the proxy experience of the world felt through a screen—far more sinister phenomena, of course, and ones that point to homogenization (read: hegemony) of quite another order. If the Ikea in Atlanta is laid out exactly like the Ikea on the edge of Paris, or if every last Wal-Mart is a perfect realization of its Platonic form—or formula (and I also hear “platitude” in “Platonic”)—without remainder or variation, the coincidences here are not coincidental: such structures replicate virally, and they have a pair of hosts—one the town the store invades, the other, probably far off, where it steals its labor from.