The Flirtation of the Natural World: D. A. Powell
Interview by John Deming
D.A. Powell and I had dinner together in a Chicago seafood restaurant on Leap Day, 2012. He ordered sushi, and I ordered spicy shrimp, and we discussed a variety of topics with a special focus on poetry, music, and mortality. Our interview was recorded, transcribed, and then co-edited. Powell’s fifth book of poems, Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys, was published by Graywolf Press in 2012. Read James Cihlar’s review of Powell’s fourth book, Chronic, here.
JD: Your poems, whether built on the long lines of your previous books or the more taut lines of your newest book, are very modern, but they also have a very rhythmic, musical, progressive delivery. Is it important to build up the music and rhythm in a poem, to earn the conclusion?
DP: In terms of endings, I think that I like the satisfaction of ending in a song, and I think of my poems as songs, as being close to the more original idea of lyric poetry. Not that other people aren’t—I just feel like the older I get, the more traditional I get, in part because your body, your mind, your thought process in the poem—those are already musical processes—you age into your music and become even more self-aware. Billie Holiday doesn’t become necessarily a better singer as she gets older, but she understands her limitations and learns how to correct for those better. As you write poems, you increase your limitations, because you are using up language, you are using up ideas, you are using up your own creative time and space.
This book does seem more formal, and is different in other ways, too. For example, your books so far have had one-word titles—Tea, Lunch, Cocktails, Chronic. This one does not.
It is two titles. One of which is the title of a song by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Yes, it’s called “Useless Landscape.” I thought I thought of it, and then I thought I would look it up just to make sure. I saw it was the title of one of his songs, and I decided it was a useful theft. In my first book, I have a poem that starts out as a parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,” and in Lunch, I have a poem that borrows its rhythm from “Waters of March.”
How does line-length inform the sonic and rhythmic experience of your poems? Was it a conscious decision to stay away from longer lines?
Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t interested in writing in sentences, so I avoided more narrative versions of poems in my own compositional practice. Not that I wasn’t a reader of them—I just felt like there is something sort of mortal about the idea of a sentence. It is a period of time, and it comes to an end, and when it ends, the force of life of syntax also ends. I know now I was consciously avoiding sentences prior to this book. But I thought, well, what would happen if you allow the sentence to have its dominion?
Was it difficult?
I like it. It was difficult. But if it is not difficult, why would you do it?
Would you tell me more about the second title – A Guide for Boys?
I think of the book as, in one respect, sort of a field guide for boys who are growing up in rural areas and terrified of their sexual identities. Obviously, their questions about their place in the world can be larger than that, but I feel like I am using sexuality as a trope.
Yeah, exactly. I wanted the book to be an outfit I am putting on. But I wanted it also to work in a legitimate way as well as ironically.
Does this relate to the first title, Useless Landscape?
I was working on a series of poems that I thought of as landscape paintings. I was going out into the world and recording it, because it is changing before our eyes, and the only way to keep it constant is to make it live in art—which is also a kind of exploitation, and I had to be aware of that.
In this book, there is frequently a sense of seeing something beautiful and wanting to ravish it.
I like the flirtation of the natural world.
So there is love of natural beauty—people, trees, flowers, and so on. And perhaps a trust in the present over the remembered.
Well, memory is a kind of construction, too. There are all kinds of construction going on in the poems, not just houses being constructed, but the development of towns. But also, I have to acknowledge somewhere in the work, for my own sense of ethics, that I too am a developer, and that I am utilizing the land for a purpose. Even by putting it into a book, I am taking natural resources and bending them to my will.
Not a literal but an imaginative ravishment of the land.
I think in the second poem in the book, “Tender Mercies,” I have the lines, “I watched it change. / Withstood that change…”
You have a line later in the book [in “Dying in a Fallow”], where you say “The weather has changed little, / but it has changed irrevocably.” How central is the notion of time to your work?
In the previous book, I borrow the image from The Shining of Jack Nicholson chasing his son through the snow with an axe, and I feel like that is what time is doing, chasing us, and I think we are both at the same time the young boy trying to escape time, and we are also the grim executioner.
So rapture comes and goes, but time is the problem, because everything goes, and everything goes on.
What is it that Nietzche says—the greatest problem is to have been born.
And then things begin slipping away.
As soon as you are born, you are bound to die and that becomes—as soon as we are aware of our own mortality—the primary reason we do everything.
In this book, you quote from the Bible, you bring in Christianity. What is your relationship with, or what are your thoughts on, organized religion?
I don’t know that it is organized religion per se. In fact, I think when organized religion shows up in my work, like the LDS, I am not terribly objective. So there are particular faith-based institutions that I have problems with, but not the faiths themselves. I think everybody has some way of organizing the world for themselves, and I think the Bible is just as good a path as any. I am really more like a Hindu—I believe all paths lead to the same god. But I grew up in the Bible Belt, so those bits of scripture are ingrained.
You take mortality very seriously, but also in good humor.
Have I not had my serious despair? I feel like I am remiss in my duties now. Well, I think I live a good deal of my life in denial like everybody else. I think that death is an inevitability for everybody, but it doesn’t apply to me.
Why is that?
That is the way we all feel, right? And if it does, then I was horribly wrong, and it is not worth griping over.
No point in being alive if you spend the whole thing thinking about being dead.
Exactly, it is like that song “Cabaret.” “What good is sitting alone in a room / Come hear the music play.”
Let’s go back to the music for a second. Music matters in your poetry. You frequently invoke the actual word “music” in your poems.
Poetry is maybe the most obvious way in which we practice music in language. But we practice that conversationally too. If I go up at the end of a line, it is your invitation to respond. If we didn’t speak the same language, you would be able to tell by my tone if I was angry with you or having a good time. I hope.
Do you ever listen to singers who are not singing in a language you understand? I love Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band that sings in both Icelandic and a made up language.
Yma Sumac. She was supposedly the princess of the lost tribe of the Incas. But then it turned out that was just a publicity persona invented by her husband. Her real name was Amy Camus—he just switched the letters around to make her Yma Sumac. And she had been singing with these grunts and trills and rrrh rrh rah. I never knew what she was saying, and I don’t think anyone else did either. Nonsense songs tells us a lot. Before you know what words to put in a poem, you have a pretty good idea what a poem sounds like.
Singers as a matter of practice provide vocal runs, or give rise to vocal phrasings that are not words.
I never knew what my mother meant by “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey.”
But it sticks with you right?
I didn’t even know that it was a pun, that I was actually supposed to hear it as “mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” I just thought that she was crazy, but I could usually tell when she was singing that song that it was going to be a pleasant day.
Also something very primary about music then right?
I think it meant she got laid that morning.
Who were some of your early formative influences?
The first poem I remember having a formative experience with was a poem called “Ante-bellum Sermon” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It was a poem that allowed me to understand different voice registers; how someone could use language to mean two things at the same time.
Well, my first book, Tea started out as a series of elegies, and I think it began to just overwhelm me, having to be in that mind for a sustained period of time. I decided to write a poem from the point of view of Sal Mineo, which is sort of an arbitrary choice in some ways, although there must have been something about Sal Mineo’s life that spoke to me. I wrote this poem and thought, oh, that works pretty well, I have got this other draft of a poem that could also be a persona poem, or a dramatic monologue, and I think that allowed me to step outside of my own concerns—insomuch as it actually did.
Robert Duncan has this phrase, an “enabling fiction.” For me, it was an enabling fiction, and it still is, that I would be writing in some other mind than my own. But the funny thing now is that I will often have poems that I think of as persona poems or dramatic monologues and people think that they are actually me. In this book, there is a poem called “Narcissus” in which I really had in mind somebody else. But I think the generous thing that I was able to come to in the writing was to recognize it’s easy to point at other people’s narcissistic tendencies, but it’s hard to get in touch with your own. I gradually relented to the idea that this poem may in fact be about me. Without changing it, but just understanding it as maybe an extension.
There are “mechanism’s beneath our mechanisms” is an A.R. Ammons line.
Yes, exactly, what can we know of ourselves: there has to be a level of unknowing in order to be able to write poems, because otherwise we would be too horrified.
What you just said reminds me of your short poem “Outside Thermalito”:
Persimmons ripen with the first frost.
The bitterness inflicted on them
takes their bitterness away.
Would that there were some other way.
Persimmons have to have a moment where they encounter bitter cold in order to ripen, in order to turn sweet. That is something I heard a lot when I was a child, and it always seemed to me a kind of life lesson that in order to be good, in order to be mature, there exists this thing in the world that can only mature through pain. There are a lot of plants that are like that, and a lot of human instances that are like that. I had always assumed that that was something everybody knew, you know, how there are pieces of information that you carry with you through your life and just assume everybody knows them. If I would mention to someone that persimmons had to have a cold snap in order to ripen, they seemed never to have heard that before. It is in part because we are not agricultural, and that then seemed to resonate with me in a number of ways—to be able to talk about how people are not agricultural, and don’t have this lore to draw upon. And how we all struggle, and need that friction in order to ripen us. And if there is no drama, there is nothing to really write a poem about.
How do you navigate that tension between expressly wanting to be part of what is surrounding you, when at the same time, we are all essentially going to be going down with the ship, our own bodies.
Well, I wonder how Shakespeare dealt with it: “That time of year thou mayest in me behold…Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” That is a horrific image of growing old and feeling like the music has left you. Before I published my first book, maybe, or maybe it was shortly after, it was around that same period, I remember I was talking with Lyn Hejinian at a party, and she said how else is it that you know the world except through your own body. How else do we know the world except through our bodies, and maybe that is a very simple kind of observation, but to me it solidified something that I knew perhaps intuitively but hadn’t heard articulated in so simple and profound a way. And she was just being conversational.
Simplicity is complexity resolved, according to Constantin Brancusi. Tell me a little bit about your own processes. Are you an intense reviser?
Well it is a little bit of everything. It really depends on the poem. Some, you get fairly right on the first sitting. Not that the first sitting is the first draft, because I mean, the misleading thing for me is that I am doing a lot of revision as I am writing the poem. Each line is really perhaps overly crafted—in fact, I think I have been accused of that—but so what. I mean, to criticize that is to say that people have no right to have any style other than whatever we perceive as straightforward, and straightforward is always a lie. As soon as you begin to codify things, as soon as you begin to articulate them—once you are called to speech, it is forever changed. The word is only elegy to the thing it signifies, according to Robert Hass. Some poems go through a lot of crafting in the drafting. With some of them, I try to trick myself into surprising myself—you know, I am on Twitter, and I will often say things in tweets that I will then later steal and put into poems.
Why did you want to write from the perspective of a dog?
I didn’t want to write from the perspective of a dog. I was going to write a poem and call it “My Life as a Doug,” but that just did not seem to work. On Twitter, I was having a conversation with someone about if I was a dog. This was the basis for the poem. Most poems start as conversations. A lot of times poems are there to complete the conversation that didn’t have a satisfactory ending while the person we were talking to was in the room with us.
And you are left thinking about it.
Yes. Poetry is an opportunity to remake reality in a way that is more suited to your own idea of how things should have gone.
So that is something in general that poetry can do—manufacture reality, or control it.
Yeah. To manufacture it, to control it, to remake it, to revise. I mean don’t you wish you had do-overs? But also, at a certain point, it is no longer about me anyway. The poem makes its own demands, it wants its own reality. I borrow freely from other events that weren’t related and combine them, which is what 19th century landscape painters did, too. They weren’t able to paint out of doors, because the paints were too unstable. They had to mix them and paint in their studios. They would go outside and sketch a tree over there, and a cow over there, and maybe two miles away a little farm house. And later in the studio, the artist began to put them together and create a scene. So to say that my poems are merely revisions of the redundancies of my life would omit so much of the compositional process.
Okay, then let’s say a poem starts in any emotional place, say, a place of personal regret, but it turns into …
Or whatever it is, yeah.
But it is usually regret.
Whatever it is, whatever the unfinished feeling is—does it for you, after it takes on a life of its own, at all satisfy the first feeling, even if it…
Well if it did, I don’t think I would write another poem. I mean, in the short term yes, in the long term, no.
What is the hardest thing about writing a poem?
I would say starting and then finishing, in that order.
The middle part is the best.
In the middle, anything can happen, and you can always cross it out.
The honeymoon phase.
Are you influenced by Whitman?
I love Whitman. I feel like he is a ghost in my machine.
There is a mortal Whitman, and a sense that to have lived at all is to live forever.
And also, Whitman accepts and understands the inevitability of death as part of his life cycle. He is losing a ton of loved ones in the midst of this huge civil strife, men that he cares about that die very young. Or are forever wounded. So in that way, I think of him as a kindred spirit.
I figured out a long time ago because I am someone who is prone to worry, that I would, I could go through the steps of what the worst scenarios were and then inevitably I would come up with “and then I would die.” And then I would think, “well, that would actually solve all the other problems.” At that point, one feels sort of liberated. Like that Zen poem that Marvin Bell is fond of quoting, what the hell is it. Live your life as if you are already dead. The thing is, if we understand the science of time, we are already dead some place. And if you get too far out into space you realize, we’re caught up in such petty worries and we just become dust. Isn’t that comforting? Shall we order dessert?