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--- T E R E S A L E O
This interview was conducted over e-mail from March 6-April 18, 2000. Rick Moody is well-known for his fiction and essays, but is also currently working with the collage and found forms in poetry. Three of his collage poems, "The Sport Which Calls for Sorrows," "Lodge Escorts Mourners," and "Use Caution Near Edge," appear in this issue, the sources of which are: an essay by Cotton Mather on dancing; a how-to book from the Fred Astaire School of Dance; a travel guide to the Grand Canyon; a web site on how to make found poems; an e-mail message from the author of this interview; a book on Masonic practices; an anthology by Ted Hughes of poems to learn by heart; Ezra Pound's Cantos; letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne; Jung; D. L. Moody; H. F. Moody, III; Simon and Schuster's Guide to Trees of the World; Pilgrim's Progress; When I Say No I Feel Guilty; Caroline Ticknor. Also in this issue is a poem, "Outtakes/Intakes," a collage assembled from parts of this interview and peripheral material from the e-mail exchange.
Teresa Leo: With the commercial success of your fiction and non-fiction, why poetry and why poetry now? Did these collage poems demand to be collage poems instead of, say, a stream-of-consciousness short piece of prose, i.e., could they be nothing else, the old "form is never more than an extension of content" paradigm, that somehow the content drove the form which drove you to poetry?
Rick Moody: I'm not sure I was driven to poetry, because that sounds romanticized. I wrote poetry as a kid, and some in my twenties, but only very occasionally. As an adult, I got the idea of found poetry from having read some examples of it. I found these examples exciting. So I began working on some collages myself, and I just kept working at them. Always with no interest but to amuse myself and a couple of friends. This is work that I can do out of the glare of the literary spotlight. I wanted to do something where play, and nothing but play, was my motive.
TL: Can you say more about "found poetry" and your process in writing it, why this form interests you, what the freedoms/constraints are, etc.?
RM: I don't know why I like found poetry, really, and the whys and wherefores of any creative act are always hard to fathom. I'm just going where inclination takes me. Maybe I like the form because it seems very contemporary, in the same way as hip-hop and electronica are contemporary: highjacking sounds from what's floating around in Western culture. I like the idea of stealing language from the history of literature, both high and low. It's sort of how the inside of my head feels: full of other texts. Remember that Walter Benjamin said that the most modern of texts would be made entirely of other texts? (I'm paraphrasing, of course.) Well, this is that idiom. I think one of the first poems I wrote along these lines came when I was working as a freelance editor for the University of Pennsylvania Press back in 1992. I edited a book with a lot of citations from Stith Thompson's Motif Index of Folk Literature, and I liked the entries so much that I made a poem out of them.
TL: Where would you like to go with these poems?
RM: I'm moving toward more density, higher volume of sources, and so forth. I have an idea, since I wrote a pretty good poem about Bill Clinton, to make a few more presidential poems, and I'm actually looking at some Nixon transcripts, in order to think about a Nixon poem. Maybe I'll do a series of presidents, maybe not.
TL: Are you moving toward a manuscript here?
RM: I made a little manuscript of the early found poems, called Fair Use, which is coming out in a limited edition this year at some point (from Lame Duck books), but I'm not really oriented toward manuscripts with this work. I'm not sure anyone would want to publish them. And, moreover, the poems are just to amuse myself, and to use pleasure and curiosity alone as barometers of success. In fiction (and non-fiction) I have to think about audience sometimes, and I don't like thinking about them. I'd rather they just followed me wherever I went. Well, there's no such literary universe, really, where a readership is so passive, and that's a good thing, but the poems get closer to it, than the prose does, because, historically, the audience for my poems has been me.
TL: This is the second time you've used the word "amuse" to describe the allure of the found poem. Thing is, I think it's as good a reason as any, perhaps even the most noble and sincere, and I hear you about poetry being something you can do outside of the literary spotlight, but I wonder if you'd comment on the work that's involved.
RM: It's a little like Burroughs with his cut-ups. Instead of looking at the source material and thinking, "What can I say with it?" I'm looking to see what I imagine it is saying itself, and figuring out how I can support or enhance that secret voice of the text. So, for example, when I was doing my Starr Report poem (The New Yorker, October 5, 1998), I was so taken with the sound of certain lines from the text ("Depends what the meaning of the word 'is' is") that I wanted to find relatives for these lines, from Shakespeare, Whitman, etc. It's very process-oriented for me, and all about sound, not at all about making any kind of declarative statement. The psychology of this language, therefore, is very complex, very ambiguous, very elusive. I have to stay so close to the meaning of prose in my prose, I have to be somewhat accessible, but this poetical process gives me the opportunity to turn my back on accessibility if the work requires it.
TL: My sources say found poetry has a bad rap. How would you defend it as an art form? Does it need defending?
RM: Yeah, it has a bad rap, but I like that it has a bad rap. I'm attracted to stuff that some people in the literary world think unworthy of attention. I like monster movies and bubble gum rock and roll and strip malls. Negation is often the site of affirmation, right? So I don't think found poems need defending at all. If you don't like them, don't read them! My sense is that my found poems have become so dense in terms of sources and allusions that they defend themselves, but if not, not. As John Lydon said once, "Our cause will be lost, but that won't be so bad."
TL: Can one do research in order to "find"? And what about citing sources? Do we have to explicitly alert the reader to the "foundness" of a found poem?
RM: Technically speaking, sure, you can do research, and I do it all the time. The poem's not done until it feels a certain way (and this feeling is intuitive, so I'm not sure I can qualify it), and I research continuously until that time. As to the citation of sources, yeah, I think it's important to cite, although I don't think you need to cite the specific passages. I usually include a note, as in Fair Use, just lumping them all in together: Cotton Mather, Stith Thompson, the Starr Report, Nicholson Baker, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, me. Like that.
TL: For kicks I poked around the web and found a 5-step instruction to the found poem:
1. Copy your selected prose onto a blank sheet of paper.
At first glance, this looks utterly doable and probably describes the process pretty well, but might it not be the recipe for disaster? Maybe it goes without saying, but is there not an artistry in the arrangement of found objects, swatches of images, bytes of conversation, phraseology, an eye for what happens when the edges of the disparate meet and synchronize or repel?
RM: Your recipe for found poems is very exciting to me, and I could make it into a poem itself, and may well. What is of interest to me is the democracy of the form--that "anybody could do it." I make absolutely no claims for myself as a poet. I'm just an obsessive-compulsive hack with a pair of scissors and a desire to escape from my reputation. I could teach my eleven-year-old nephew how to do what I do, and if he does it with a sense of wonder and reverence for language his poems will turn out just as well as mine, if not better.
TL: You've worked with collage in prose as well as poetry. Can you talk about the essay you wrote recently on Brian Eno (Tin House, vol. 1, no. 1)? What did this particular form as a way to talk about Eno afford you?
RM: I wrote thirteen separate pieces on Brian Eno and then Amy, my partner, wrote a computer program to generate a random sequence of numbers between one and thirteen. Each section of the piece was given a number, and then when the random sequence was generated, this became the order of the sections of the essay. The title, in Lotus Notes code, is the program for the generation of a random sequence of numbers that served as the organizing principle for the essay as a whole.
As far as Eno himself goes, this kind of technique is one that he has used in his work (in Music For Airports the loops are constructed to "fall" into the piece, and not according to time signatures, just however they happen), and of course it's also familiar from John Cage's work, which has been very, very important to me as a writer.
TL: I think there's crossover here with the collage poetry, but here more than in the poetry I suspect the secret is in the balancing, the self and the self's response to Eno, sort of (to use some of your words) a "lateralness," not meaning without depth, but more of an "equal but opposite" rendering of personal vignette and something like critique, equally weighted and shaped as much by omission as by action. Could any random ordering of the sections really have worked?
RM: Well, the Eno piece is definitely cut from the same cloth as the poems. I'm not sure if all random constructions of this piece would have worked as well as the random construction which is its completed state. There is a finished shape to the piece, of course, and if it were in a different shape, I might have titled it differently or messed internally with it a little bit, etc. So I'm not interested in all the possible shapes of this piece, but, actually, just the one that now exists in nature. I suppose the issue here is the nature of randomness. Are we trusting strictly to chance, or do we believe that important subconscious work, not to say the work of collective unconscious or even the Divine, are in play when we allow a piece to assume a "random" shape?
Some of the poems have been randomly constructed, or constructed initially according to numerical constraints (there was one called "Sixteen," in which each fragment had to come from a page that had a number divisible by sixteen, which is, of course, the signature number of all contemporary books), but when these constructions are finished being assembled they become loveable in their final shape, like a certain Coltrane solo which becomes the Coltrane solo. Retroactively, the poems must be in the shape they're in, until a different construction is attempted. So I suppose I don't believe in a randomness that has no other motivation than chance. Randomness is a way to martial other forces.
TL: What poets have you read or heard whose work appeals to you and why?
RM: I love Susan Wheeler's poems. I love the long narrative poems of Frank Bidart, especially "Ellen West." I love the earlier Wallace Stevens. I love everything I've read of Anne Carson. My tastes, as in fiction, are very, very Catholic, so there's no real rhyme or reason to this, except that pleasure is the least fallible of guides with respect to poetry, as elsewhere. I like some Merwin, some Ashbery, some Ginsberg, some Robert Hass. Anything, just about, by William Carlos Williams. I like some spoken word poetry quite a bit, Hal Sirowitz, for example, and I think it is a useful force. Catherine Bowman. Campbell McGrath. But this is useless. I hate making lists in this way.
What I've always resisted about poetry (and in this sense my "found poems" are surely a commentary on this aspect of contemporary poetry) is its cabalistic, secret-society aspect: only specialists need apply. I'm much more interested in the definition of the art that includes love poems by American teenagers and Hallmark greeting cards, and the Starr Report, as well as all the high art above, etc. It's poetry trying to sequester itself that leads to trouble.
TL: I know what you mean about the kind of sequestering that could rival that of the O.J. Simpson jury. There are so many camps out there, from Pinsky's let's-bring-poetry-to-the-people plan to the spoken word to the political/confessional/narrative/ethnopoetic to those "ex-po" writers, the experimentalists/computer generators/gematria aficionados that have come out of and have gone beyond the Language school. If such a trajectory exists, where would you put collage or found poetry?
RM: I think that I would put found poetry, as a practice, way down on the list, somewhere just above light verse and greeting cards, just below abcedary books for children. But that doesn't mean, though the practice is quite simple, that the results might not be somewhat complex, somewhat demanding.
TL: How, if at all, does narrative fit in?
RM: I have written found poems with a lot of narrative, and also found poems that are the most autobiographical work in my entire canon. I'm thinking, in the latter case, of a "sonnet sequence" I wrote (Open City #6, 1998) entitled "Two Sonnets For Stacey," written for my friend the short story writer Stacey Richter. It's one of my earlier efforts, using only one source, viz., two fourteen line assemblages of the agree-or-disagree statements from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index test. I simply chose only statements from the MMPI that I agreed with. It's a tragicomic little opus, and tells you more about me than you will ever want to know. It's ironic, odd, but also, in a way, very direct.
TL: What about the author, the "I" of the poem? Should he/she be decentralized, evacuated? I think of Roethke: "Which I is I?" Does it matter?
RM: I'm familiar with a number of experimental poets, like Jena Osman from Temple University, Rob Fitterman, Stacey Dorris, Ann Lauterbach, and I like all this work a lot, but no one of these poets has ever convinced me that they are evacuated from the work. Look at Lauterbach's "Prom in Toledo Night." It's practically a confessional poem. Even the most hard-to-interpret Language poetry is autobiographical at its fundament, even if an attempt to purge self is the most selfish thing about the work. All writing is about human consciousness, all of it. To this extent, I have always found the rationale for Language poetry more interesting than the poetry itself. I like any kind of experimental urge with respect to language, poetical or otherwise, maybe because I was a would-be deconstructionist when I was an undergraduate and was trained in a lot of these postmodern impulses. But I don't think we should ever fool ourselves about the ultimate source of all this work: a writer. Nor should we fool ourselves about how this work is completed: by a discerning reader.
TL: Yes, yes, and speaking of the autobiographical, I wonder if you'd talk a bit about non-fiction, the personal essay/memoir variety. I think there's some truth in Phillip Lopate's remark in his intro to Art of the Personal Essay, when he says that non-fiction makes people feel "less freakish and lonely." What's your take? Do you have a policy on disclosure/autobiography as it applies to your work, especially non-fiction? Where do you draw the line--any boundaries, pull-back caveats?
RM: You know, I've been working on a non-fiction book for a long time, almost three years, that is really about these issues. For each book, I make a little sign for myself, which I glue onto my printer, to remind myself of why I'm writing it. (For Purple America, e.g., the sign was "If it isn't Purple, it isn't Purple America.") For the new book, the sign is simply "Naked Vulnerability." I do think that what Lopate says has a lot of merit. For me, the source of the impulse is Montaigne, and the opening of the Essays, "I intended my book solely for the solace of my family and friends: that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some lines of my character, and by this means more fully and vividly cherish me in their memory." It's as simple as that, really. The inscription aspect of writing, the putting of words down on the rock, or on parchment, is about history and about the consignment of the self to history, even for Language poets. And so whether I am making a fiction or a collage or working on the self-revelation of non-fiction, it is all about leaving myself behind, for family and friends, as editor and arranger of language.
TL: From what I have read of your work, it seems like you are able to traverse all ground in all genres. Do you think this is true instead of say, going to fiction for X, non-fiction for Y, and poetry for Z? I'm sure it's not as clear-cut as this. But for me there's something about the container and conventions of poetry in particular that allow for and forgive the kind of deranged syntax and ghosting of meaning I find necessary to talk about certain things.
RM: In a way, I'm superstitious about answering this question, because to do so would be to claim to have fully investigated each genre and thus to know what each genre can do and cannot do, to the exclusion of the others. Part of my working hypothesis for a while (and it is more prevalently the case, probably, in the non-fiction stuff) has been that genre is actually only a convenience and not a quality that inheres in a literary act. It's something that we impute to a work, later, so as to be able to shelve it properly. To take the idea to its conclusion: genre is a capitalist taxonomy, one which enables booksellers to slot a writer into the proper department, one which enables magazines to review the work on the proper page. But when Montaigne did what he did, he didn't know what he was doing, and later he called his works "essays." I don't really think my poems are poems and I don't really think my non-fiction works are non-fiction works, and some of my fictional works are not fiction. I think of all these works as literary efforts, and whether they adhere to codes that have sprung up in the wake of these categories (since we are shelving poems here, all the things that go on this shelf should have the following qualities) is not of much interest to me. Indeed, the most exciting work for me is work that strides these divides and borrows elements from each of the provisional categories.
TL: What was your first act of writing? I mean, back then, as a kid, some moment/event that drew you toward the page instead of say, to the basketball court or canvas or glockenspiel as a means of expression.
I'm thinking of what you said earlier, how "the putting of words down on rock" is about the "consignment of the self to history." For me that's literally how it happened. I had immigrant grandparents (Italy) and was raised by one set where my grandfather was a coal miner, this in a town of slag-covered mountainsides, breakers, draglines on the hill that overlooked the high school, etc.
My grandmother kept the little cup of pencils up in the cabinet next to the shot and highball glasses out of my reach. No one seemed to care about my desire to get at those pencils, so I used chunks of coal to write words out on the sidewalk, the road, the neighbor's concrete wall, rocks in the backyard. Just a few words here and there: rain, worm, door, girl, help, get out. I don't know if this counts as poetry, but it was a way of leaving messages to myself, a way to pretend, when I'd stumble upon a stray word days later, that there was some narrative larger than that of my life.
I think this is why I'm drawn to poetry, especially the kind that plays with "fractured narrative." You?
RM: My early creative endeavors are far less poetical than yours. I was a very, very slow learner and not terribly good at writing or anything else as a child. I was a reader, above all, and came from a household of voracious readers and very fluent people. My mother wrote some, but kept it all to herself; my father was a keen student of American literature, though he got sidetracked in the world of finance somehow. Since I was a reader first, it stands to reason that my work would be taken up with reading and with signs of reading. The collage as a gesture is a kind of surfeited reading. So much has been taken in that some of it has begun to pour back out. I do remember, however, writing things on the driveway in chalk and getting lectured for it. Apparently, this was not what one did with one's driveways in the orderly Connecticut suburbs. But a rainstorm came soon after and got me out of the trouble.
I really can't talk about my childhood with any kind of verve, because it was so routine, and what magic there was was anyone's magic. I am exactly like every other kid from the middle class. My childhood appalls me. I was frequently lonely and sad, and that's about the only unusual thing I can say about it. I remember being in love with Halloween, however, because I knew there was another register of human events that couldn't be easily perceived with the available sentences, and I remember, one day, taking an ordinary piece of Tupperware with the intent that I was going to decorate it with the signs and symbols of this other register of human events, this Halloween register. I worked and worked, in my abbreviated mind, to attempt to come up with just the right image, and finally settled on the classic ghost image.
I drew this ghost on the outside of the Tupperware container with the traditional American laundry marker known as the Sharpie. But I was incredibly disappointed by my efforts, by the crudity of my creative skills, and abandoned the decorated piece of Tupperware, and it's only later in life that I have come up with the exculpatory notion that decorating a container is so like what the Greeks did, and maybe, in my way, I was attempting a kind of iteration of what interested me as an artist, in just the way the Greeks decorated their casks of wines and bowls and so forth. It's a stretch, but I wasn't raised by coal miners, I was raised by middle class people in Connecticut who didn't understand what it was to be creative, but tried to help me along just the same. We didn't have coal sitting around the house. Well, maybe over by the barbecue . . .
TL: Ever have any regrets about something personal you wrote after seeing it in print? I even have small twinges of regret right after I hit the "Send" button on an e-mail.
RM: I have never regretted anything I've put down in print, although some of the stuff about my time in the psychiatric hospital is not easy for me to talk about. But talking is so different from writing, as it is provisional and temporary. Amy, my partner, has a sign on her computer, "It wants to be written," and that to me is what language really does want, to be made coherent for future generations, rather than to be spoken. Talk is trash language, really, although it can be useful in the way that jazz is useful, for immediacy and spontaneity. But what I have written, I have written, as Pilate says. I can live with all of it.
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