An interview with Andrew Zawacki by Brian Teare (page 8)
BT: Whereas the diction, philosophical concerns, and formal practice of Anabranch read to me more as an elaboration and refinement of those in Breakings than as a leave-taking of them, the poems of Petals read at first as much as—if not more of—a departure from your first two books. The book, after all, ends with a Janus-faced gesture of simultaneous farewell and arrival: “goodbye / it’s okay / goodbye / white flame in a white / fog in a windflower coming / to meet us.” I could locate this feeling of aesthetic departure in the presence of a wider range of tonalities (the sardonic ironies of “Georgia”), a more pervasive recourse to a digital, contemporary diction (as in the “x-band radar / Technicolor” of “Arrow’s shadow”), as well as a music that on the whole allows for more dissonance and holds more internal fracture within its measures. However, it’s the epigraph from Spicer’s Heads of the Town Up to the Aether that seems to me to summarize a more fundamental shift in the book’s Weltanschauung, even if it’s more a change of attitude or tone than of ideas per se. Though the “wires in the rose are beautiful,” there’s more than a little of Spicer’s bitter distrust in the sonic play of “the cylinders poppet a dead- / pan / a tin- / pan / pan / -egyric.” I suppose I’m suggesting that, in the same way that Spicer made linguistics existential, your recent poems could be said to marry apophatic theology to post-structuralism in a way that threatens each discourse with collapse: “sentence under sentence // parole on parole…language is silence’s stop- / gap.” How would you characterize the change in the tonalities of the new work? Or do you not see as large a change as I do?
AZ: What negative theology and post-structuralism have in common, among so many other things, is a sense of language, as you say, folding up, falling out underneath itself, containing the strains of its own unstringing, that is, trying to contain precisely what it can’t—and registering its awareness of that inadequacy. Like language, apophatic theology points at an object—the divine—without touching it; both language and negative theology know that something exists but not what it is: we are in the realm of the deictic, of approach without arrival. Both post-structuralism and negative theology are trying to think—and valorize—the event, the exception, escape, exasperation, the butterfly wing flutter that undergirds the world even as it threatens to pull the whole thing down. These concerns are wonderfully worked out, in manifold ways, across the writings of Marion. On the other hand, it’s not really Spicer’s frustrated dream of developing a “thing language”—his desire to say “lemon” and have the poem contain citrus, his wish to turn Moore’s imaginary gardens into gardens as real as the toads already there—that has compelled me, interesting as that problem may be.
Like you, I was born in the early 1970s. We’re children of the age that inaugurated a move, during our adolescence, from analog to digital. That in itself heralds a tonal shift: listening to an iPod is not akin to hearing the same song on a 33 or 45, for instance. The ambient noise inherent to the latter—the material of the vinyl itself—if only nostalgically is, to me, less “noise” than signal; to my ear, digitally reducing those snaps, crackles, and pops takes something essential away from the song “itself.” Similarly, in photography, what used to be known as “grain” (and still is for photographers working in film) has an equivalent in digital image “noise,” even if the parallels are exactly that—just parallel, not identical—, and since it’s that grain/noise that I love in photos there will always be something missing from digital photography, however much I throw myself into it. (I very much like, by the way, how the visual is described in terms of sound: “noise.”)
Petals wants to be aware of these and other technological and aesthetic relocations, not simply to index them as facts—banal at best—but to work them, work with them, discover them immanent and variously manifest or emergent in the world around us, to find out how they might happen at the level of language as matter. A roundabout example: while I’ve never been a devoted fan of Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot got my attention, and one of my grad students, Josh Hussey, directed me to an interview with Jeff Tweedy that revealed, in part, what attracted me to the album. Tweedy has always been interested in short-wave radio and Morse code, and as everyone is aware YHF is a tactical military signal on a Mossad network, broadcast in a female “voice” that’s actually a speech synthesizer. Writing the album, he’d been listening to CDs of recorded transmissions intercepted from international intelligence agencies. Coded transmissions, whether numerical or linguistic, erupt all over the album. Radiohead and many, many other bands have worked with similar voiceovers and -unders, albeit more computer-based.
Then when I saw Merce Cunningham perform in Paris a few years ago to a Sigur Rós track, I had to get ba ba ti ki di do, so I could put its eccentric weaving of eunuch lyrical trill, haptic samples of Cunningham’s voice, and radio interference on repeat for days. I kept hearing it as an impeccably groomed, even patrician mosquito strapped into the conductor’s seat of some CSX freight train gone off the rails. Similarly, on the home front, the bedroom where my wife and I sleep when at my in-laws’ house, outside Paris, is right below the office where her father, a ham radio operator, broadcasts and receives. On Sunday mornings, Sandrine and I wake up to the garbled, staccato, automaton drone of myriad voices coming down from upstairs. Initially, the sounds were foreign and bothered my sleep. Soon after, more accustomed, I’d find myself wandering into wakefulness from dreams that contained these otherworldly communications.
How could poetry do that? I wanted a language whose relation to the world was, on one hand, coded rather than coherent or transparent—some techno-jabberwocky that could blip and get interfered with and accumulate meaning through its rhythm and idiolect, call signs, hermetic banter and shorthand—and, on the other, not representational so much as onomatopoeic, oneiric, obliquely suggestive. Needless to say, Spicer’s interest in—his quasi-mystical, quasi-paranoid trust in—radio transmissions had been in my mind, and not just for his theory of Orphic (or Cocteauvian) transcription. Spicer’s wide tonalities were a revelation for me, that grunge meeting gorgeousness—language above and below the line in “Homage to Creeley / Explanatory Notes,” if not language as that forward-slash—that somehow I’d denied my own work, although it’s always been a part of my person, from the city basketball camp barracks to Oxford high table. In real time I speak in a broad spectrum of registers that were, for reasons I couldn’t explain to myself, being cordoned off from my poems, as though poems needed to be made of higher or more polished tones.
So I was desperate to open the field, not because my experience had somehow become greater or more urgent after Anabranch, but because I realized that I was resisting, in poetry, a vast array of languages and pitches I use all the time in the world. My bandwidth, in writing, was awfully narrow vis-à-vis the one I went around with everyday. (One element of “noise” to which I remain entirely tone-deaf in my work, but I hope not in my personality, is the humoristic; but that’s for another discussion.) The echo and playing bumper cars with sound became more street-level for me, more quotidian, and I started allowing discourses to co-exist that had previously not occurred to me as commensurate. Or rather, I became fond of putting together the nomenclature of gemstones and musical notation, say, or profanity and GPS instructions, precisely because they’re usually mutually resistant anywhere except in the context of the poem I was wrangling. I remember wondering at one point, à la Stevens, what it would sound like if a little boy blue guitarist were to go electric.