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An interview with Andrew Zawacki by Brian Teare           (page 5)

BT: One of the qualities I find most moving in Anabranch is its gorgeously built music—its diction, alliteration and prosody work in seamless counterpoint despite great variation in accentual pattern, tone, and level of diction. Occasionally baroque, Latinate language is deftly woven into the highly variable music of the line, as in this excerpt from “Viatica”: “one by one the architraves, they were part / of the falling snow, and one by one // these brothers of mine…” As are startlingly savage swerves from lyric into the vernacular: “one by one the visitors saying / fuck you, I don’t remember // I can’t feel my face.” And flirtations with meter: “anapest flowers, courtyard of ash, / shadow that casts a slattern, peridot sun // and fronts that come in and keep going.” Given that the end result is a sonic vocabulary unlike anyone else’s, I’m wondering if you could speak to your formal inspirations and ideals during the composition of the book?

AZ: Well, telling someone to fuck off can be pretty lyrical, too. A woman I’d dated for a few months in New York, for instance, called me the day I before I moved out of the city. We hadn’t been together for several months, but she must have remembered when I was going and sensed I’d slink out of town, like the coward I was, without a word. So we had a nice chat for a half-hour or so, before she said, “Anyway, I’d better get back to work. But I didn’t want you to leave without telling you good luck, and fuck you.” I’ve always admired that sendoff, both the need to say such a contradictory, complementary thing—to someone who deserved the second half but not the first—and the lovely, neutral diction with which she said it.

Thank you for appreciating the “sonic vocabulary” of Anabranch. I love everything about language, from the way you can romance it with highfalutin, retro rhetoric to the sudden desire to treat it like a guy who just slept with your wife, and the infinity of other modes and tones and attitudes in between. You can do whatever you want to language—bend it, break it, bitch or bark at orders at it, betray it for another, bring it home to show mother, beg it to lullaby you to sleep, cite or steal it, bisect or beef it up, bless or blaspheme or build an entire skyscraper of Muzak out of it—it’s always going to bounce back, and you’re never going to succeed in hurting or harnessing it. What egomania to think you could level the least bit of mastery on it. But you get over that failure pretty early and turn it, instead, to advantage: you try to stay out of its way, take a snapshot of it, like some roadside radar gun, as it goes by, or a motion study à la Muybridge.

We don’t need Levi-Strauss or Irving Goffman or Proust to show us how we’re each of us so many people, depending on the situation we’re in, and there’s a language—languages—that accompany each of those roles. I’m a teacher to my students, a colleague to colleagues, brother to my brothers, father to my daughter, an ex to the woman I mentioned earlier, a different ex to other exes, a helpless, frustrated client at the BNP, a weirdo to the baby I burble and make funny faces at on the metro, an asshole to the kid who cuts in front of me at the Monoprix checkout. And without even reflecting on it for a second, I use a different language in each case, and I don’t just mean English and French, but even within a “single” language: the encouraging but insistent tenor and nomenclature I use to tell the student to rewrite her paper, for example, is not even in the same zip code as the vocabulary and voice I employ with the right-winger who wants me to believe some malarkey about the evils of immigration. They both come from me, and neither is more “natural” than the other. Yet, despite the differences of protocol, there are always overlaps, as languages from one zone slide into zones where they’re not quite at home, the way the French love to use American words, for business scenarios or the dance club or sports match (Odette tried to show off with them, too: le lunch), or the way we Americans use (or misuse) French phrases when we think we’re being sexy or smart (“that woman has a certain je ne sais pas,” said one of my friends once, admiringly).

For me, increasingly, poetry is the “name” of this overlap. I’m not as interested in the properties of these discourses as they occur in supposedly appropriate context; I’m more intrigued by what happens to them when they meet each other in a space—the poem—where they don’t immediately or ever belong together. So “music,” yes, but as long as we include within that wide word: noise coming up from the restaurant downstairs, live guitar feedback, cell phone interference, the overwrought sympathy card and the wedding invitation printed in calligraphy, the IP address, the poorly synchronized porno video voiceover, the exquisite and seductive (or excruciating, off-putting) discourse of the theoretician, the controversial ad campaign and the self-righteous response it garners, the espresso machine instruction manual (especially its would-be translation), the faux ami, the poem you keep failing to translate to your or its author’s satisfaction, the sidewalk preacher telling you where you’re headed (it’s not up), the goddaughter on the phone telling you about her new pet, the large-screen Grand Theft Auto demo at Montparnasse, the weather report, the misspelled menu item or road sign. Not to mention, beyond the contingencies of what you overhear and -see, all the materials that make up our private stashes of public language; the poem is frequently our mode of wanting to send them back to the public domain.

It’s not like this isn’t informed by what already happens in the world. You’re listening to Grizzly Bear’s “Colorado,” with its sad and eerie supplications (“What now, what now, what now, what now?”), when the bloke at the supermarket, pretending not to see you, jumps the queue (“Mais qu’est-ce que tu foutes là?”). Even before this clash of languages and registers, there was already a bad glam-rock tune ghosting your iPod from the supermarket speakers, so you’ve really be listening to two songs, “Colorado” + 1, and meanwhile you’ve been scrolling through today’s Libé, reading about the American elections and wondering what Obama really said, in English, while sort of paying attention, as well, to the clock, since you’re late for a party, hence preoccupied by rehearsing your excuse. Or think of that classic case of being deep inside a book when, from a conversation next to you, a word erupts that coincides with the very same word your eye has just passed over in the paragraph—obviously, they’re not the “same” word any more, if they ever were. Yet the two drunkards on the metro platform are now firmly ensconced in Zola’s fiction, or vice versa, simply for having pronounced the word that Mouret just heard.

I hear Dickinson lamenting, “Because that you are going / and never coming back,” which will never stop breaking my heart. Thom Yorke grumbling, “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case, get off my case,” like walking through a morning without caffeine—the percussion practically duplicated by the muffled rumblings of the vending machine in the bowels of the BnF. The almost tautological clarity of Stevens reporting, “It was snowing / And it was going to snow,” alongside Alvin Feinman’s gorgeous closing line, “as if snow were its poem out of snow.” Robert Mitchum telling Jane Russell, in Macao, “They rolled me for the diamond and the gun”; I was speaking with a friend about this line earlier today, and that same friend complimented the power of another text with, “Wow, ça tue sa mère”—that kills your mom.

As for formal inspiration: I’m far more conscious—and, as a result, dissatisfied—of formal possibilities than I was a decade ago. Whereas Breakings and Anabranch comprise mainly lyrics that, if disjunctive and fractured, nonetheless pledge their allegiance to song, to the voice before the mark, my newer work has tired of those formats and is restless for further ways of organizing or disordering itself—more radical, more traditional, more constrained, more free, I don’t care: I’ll consider all comers, leave no leaf unturned, but I’m a lot less inclined today to honor Olson’s approval of Creeley’s proposal that form extends content. I’ve been soliciting language to behave in reverse. “Arrow’s shadow” jams all its language against the right-hand margin: as a way of accelerating time, of disrupting the reading practice, of splintering words in syntactically “incorrect” places in order to create strange cognates, false roots, quasi-French common denominators, unusual visual correspondences and anagrams. In this sense, translating Sébastien Smirou has been signal, since on the structural level his work has led me into thinking more spatially. Mon Laurent is divided into eight chapters, each comprising sixteen full-justified quatrains. He’s part of a French poetry community—along with Suzanne Doppelt, Pierre Alferi, Frédéric Forte, Michèle Métail, Michelle Grangaud, and others, some of the Oulipeans—whose orientation has been partially formed through following Emmanuel Hocquard’s and Jacques Roubaud’s engagement with Zukofsky’s numerical layouts and Stein’s permutated reiterations. It’s through these and other contemporary French writers’ work that I’ve become interested in Denise Levertov’s remark, made earlier than “Some Notes on Organic Form,” that “form itself can be perceived, admired, and experienced as pleasure or stimulus even when the reader’s attention is not held by content,” that unlike content “form can be apprehended and absorbed in and of itself.”

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