Spotlight: Rae Armantrout
Out in the World: Rae Armantrout
Interview by John Deming
Rae Armantrout’s new book, Just Saying, was released in February. I interviewed her at the AWP Conference in Boston in March; the following has been transcribed and edited. There is a review of Just Saying here.
I’m very aware of musical phrases. When I’m composing, I say my poems out loud. I’m very much attracted to the sound of words. I think I started writing because my mother read poetry to me when I was a small child.
What did she read?
She had a children’s encyclopedia called Childcraft that had, believe it or not—I know encyclopedias are retro to begin with—two anthologies of poetry for children. So it had Lewis Carrol and such, but it also had a few poems by Emily Dickinson. I guess the editor thought they were nature poems. There was also some stuff by Shakespeare from The Tempest. “Ariel’s Song.” And “Where The Bee Sucks, There Suck I.”
So the lyric is somewhat implanted in childhood.
Yes. But I don’t know about the need for fragmentation, as you put it—I mean, I don’t go into a poem thinking, “how will I fragment this?” I think it’s that I write at different times. Very few poems are actually written continuously. They kind of jump from moment to moment, or day to day, or realization to realization. I just don’t try to fill in the gaps.
The former. I just sort of jot things down. Sometimes it will be a longer idea, and sometimes it will be a shorter idea. Sometimes I see something, sometimes I hear something, and then I will think I perceive a relationship or some kind of potential connection between them and start putting them together. Then I hone them a little bit so that they echo and have a resonance with each other.
You also populate the poems with current events—pop culture, news, science. Is it important to you to engage in a kind of poetic journalism that is reflective of the culture and times you live in?
Really, it is just whatever I see and hear and happen to react to. And since we live in an urban world, and we live in a media-saturated world, of course part of what I see and have feelings about is going to be contemporary events and modern things.
You do the same thing with colloquialisms, common phrases, sometimes placed in quotes, sometimes not. I begin to see the human animal objectively, almost absurdly, in terms of its patterns and repetitions.
I do hear sometimes the undersides of what people say. Sometimes I just hear it literally, as in the title, Just Saying—you hear that expression all the time, and what it generally tends to mean is, “now I’m going to tell you an unpleasant truth.” But I also just literally heard, “the meaning of this is just speech; these are only words.” So I guess I hear the emotional valences of phrases, and I like to point to them and play around with them.
When I read your poems, I’m often reminded of how words are signifiers for things and not the things themselves. On some level, is every word a metaphor for the thing it is trying to describe, and does that make it something of a contrivance?
I do think that metaphors are universal. At the same time, metaphor as a device can seem very contrived. I mean rhetorical metaphors. So on the one hand, I want to be careful with them. On the other hand, thinking is based on them, so you can’t just avoid them. Seeing connections between things—“this is like that”—is pretty much how we get around the world.
You mentioned media-saturation. Do you think that a lot of the language we are exposed to is designed to distract, and in some cases, to deceive? I’m thinking of advertising language, that kind of thing.
Often. I mean, I think it’s a good idea to do a double take on what you hear, and poetry is good for creating that kind of double take—“what did I just hear, and what might that mean?”
Yes, it’s going to just get you into a conversation with the person that you always wanted to talk to.
Right. And yet it often seems in your poems that you’re also not being judgmental about language on that level. There is a certain pleasure in identifying how absurd our engagement is with language.
I enjoy language. It really varies form poem to poem. Sometimes I’m having a more angry response to something, and sometimes, I am just having fun with something.
Then is it a way of engaging with the world? Whatever you process and experience, if there is an emotional response, whether it’s anger or something else, this is a way of engaging with it.
People sometimes think that my poetry, or so called “language” poetry, is very cerebral. I’m not saying that intellect doesn’t come into it—it certainly does—but I often start with some kind of feeling that I can’t put a name to right away. And that’s how I start writing. I’m sure I’m not unique in that regard. I guess I just don’t like a lot of filler. I try to take out language that’s not interesting, that doesn’t interest me—and sometimes, that means that there’s just not a lot of back story.
Does it take a long time to write an individual poem?
It varies. Sometimes it does and sometimes they come pretty quickly. Some of my favorites come very quickly. But sometimes they take weeks.
I’m interested in something you said about music. I love the piece that you wrote for Poets Off Poetry. You say in it that writing about certain songs will probably tell the reader more about you than they would find out any other way. What is it about pop songs, do you think? You find out that someone loves a song by, say, Heart…
Right…and it is actually a particularly intimate piece of knowledge about something that is meaningful to the person.
That’s the most obvious kind of knowledge, in the sense that you know what their set of references is, and where they’re coming from. But I was thinking of something a little more subtle, too, a little harder to describe. I don’t know enough musicology to really talk about it, but the obvious thing to say would be that I’m really attracted to music that’s in a minor key, and I don’t know why, but I am. I bet that if you analyzed my tastes musically, there would be certain progressions that just somehow do it for me emotionally.
Do you think that poems work in a similar way? You find out that someone worships Whitman, for example.
Yes, I guess so. But since I’m so invested in poetry, I tend to think that certain poets really are very good, and of course anyone would love them, and I don’t always have that same feeling about other cultural manifestations. But you have your favorites even among the greats. For example, I guess Dickinson is more important to me than Whitman.
Your last three books have come out two years apart from each other—Versed came out in 2009, Money Shot in 2011, and now Just Saying in 2013. Do you accumulate manuscripts in a way that has patterns?
As soon as one’s done, I give it to the publisher. So it’s not like I’m sitting on a bunch. I actually have a good bit of another book written, which I think is going to be called Itself.
I have one of those really old-fashioned hard thesis binders that I put poems in. So let’s say that the first poem in the book—I think the first poem I wrote that went into Just Saying is “Real Time”—that goes in a thesis binder. Then the next poem that I write is going to have to go before it or after it. And then the next poem that I write is going to have to go between them, before them, or after them. I do it that way, with some variation. It’s organic, but I’m thinking about the relationships between them as I go.
Do you write every day, or do you have fits and starts?
I have fits and starts. I wish that I could write every day. But you know, it would be hard to write every day at this conference, right? I have been trying to work on a poem a little bit in my room, but I’m not in my room that often. Life happens.
We talked before about how you might use something overheard, a snippet of speech, something from television or other media. When this happens, is there a scramble to get it written down before you lose it?
I always have a notebook with me, and I will take notes. If something strikes me in a particular way, I’ll write it down. And then maybe I’ll use it, and maybe I won’t.
Do you write first drafts by hand?
Yes, because I’m usually out in the world somewhere. That’s where I first get an idea. I think that sitting at a computer, looking at a blank screen, and thinking “I’m going to write” would be intimidating to me. So I like to have something written down, and then even if it’s not very good before I get it to the computer, I can mess with it. The other time that I write is when I first get up, and I’m drinking my coffee, and maybe I’m thinking back over the previous day or something and ideas might come to me.
Your poetry combines an engagement with the world that you live in with the language that you’re using. Is poetry a way of being in the world?
Oh, certainly. I think it makes me feel more alive. I think if I didn’t write, I’d start feeling more like an automaton or something.