Aaron Shurin once described himself as “the bastard son of Robert Duncan and Frank O’Hara, an heir to seemingly irreconcilable poetic territories: diction high and low, mythopoeic drama and breezy urban rhythm….” It’s an apt description for this author of over twenty books and chapbooks of poetry and prose, whose latest collection, Citizen, came out in January from City Lights Books.
I first encountered Shurin’s poetry in Timothy Liu’s momentous anthology of gay poetry, Word of Mouth. I was a young poet on a personal journey to read all of my gay predecessors, to interview as many as I could, and to explore how sexual identity affects imagination and artistic creation. In Liu’s anthology I came across Shurin’s poem “City of Men,” full of provocative lines such as “blending each body from the gnaw, wet overture.” Shurin had created the poem by blending Whitman’s homoerotic “Calamus” poems with his putatively heterosexual “Children of Adam” series—marrying the erotic celebration of bodies in the latter with the disembodied love poems of the former. How could I not be drawn to such a poem, one that so brazenly and lyrically conjoins the conflicted body and soul of the grandfather of all gay poets?
But Shurin’s poetry mystified me, challenged me with its semantic disjunction and use of collage; still seeking my own voice, I wasn’t ready to dive into his torqued syntax and seemingly disconnected images. Several years later, I would again read Shurin after being assigned to review his book of prose essays King of Shadows. In an essay recalling his high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shurin writes about discovering his future self in the poetic language of the play and the character of “fairy” Puck. He wore “the mask of a mythic structure that would prove to be my natural face,” and spoke “the masque of a mythic structure of language whose amped sonorities and playfulness would prove to be my natural voice.” That poetry and identity could be so intertwined thrilled me.
I returned to Shurin’s poetry and consumed it all. What I discovered was a poet of daring identity experiments and singular sexual politics; his early poems were outwardly gay liberationist (and feminist) in tone and theme, and sharply intelligent and seeking. His later work, dense and difficult, seemed to encode sex and desire into language, syntax, and form. This was a poet who could pluck words from Shakespeare’s sonnets and use them to create lines like “or be sprung upon flattened then that tongue / lays/ bare breastbone flayed and circling down conjunctive song / I make you make me sing.” Shurin’s new music is suffused with a mysterious eroticism, and yet in its own way, it coheres. He crafts a heady mix that repays the effort it demands.
These transformative powers make Shurin one of the most exciting poets writing today. His explorations of prose poetry, collage, and “derived language” have allowed him to enjoy a distinguished career as a poet who defies categorization.
I interviewed the poet via Skype on two occasions, with Shurin speaking from his home in San Francisco.
Christopher Hennessy: Was there a time when you said, like Whitman, “Now in a moment I know what I am for and already a thousand singers, a thousand songs … have started to life within me”? I’m basically asking if you recall the moment you felt called to be a poet.
Aaron Shurin: You know, I always thought I was going to be a poet or a writer, even when I was a child writing little rhymed poems—before I knew anything. I was a very sloppy juvenile, intellectually, and I still presumed that I was going to be a poet long into adolescence without doing any serious writing. I think I inherited a love of language from both my parents, and I did keep myself busy reading and constantly memorizing classic American ballads like “Casey at the Bat” and “The Face upon the Barroom Floor”—such melodrama! Then in high school [the desire to write] started rousing: in the title piece of King of Shadows, I describe my experience of playing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of entering Shakespeare—audibly, vocally—through Oberon’s great speech about flowers (“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows”). Performing that poetry turned me on body and soul, though I still wasn’t writing much. Then I met Denise Levertov in college, and by then the expectation [that I would be a writer] was already so well developed that it was just like “Oh right, I actually have to do it.” [CH laughs.] Then it was a complete, holistic never-turn-back; that was that. So I guess I was 21.
CH: Sometimes I read a line of yours, and it seems like it’s meant to show how language can be incantation, how it doesn’t need a fixed “meaning” to cast a spell over us: “So a letter as always breeches [sic] the focus of gauze, in which a parade of marionettes lilts in beating the time of regatta is a festoon in a brass pot.” How do you feel about the characterization of your work as incantatory?
AS: For me, sound haunts language even when it’s silent text, and “incantation” is sound raised to the level of meaning. Not “fixed” meaning, as you say, but something nevertheless apprehended, felt. I think my work may be essentially sonorous. If I were going to get down to brass tacks, I would say, for me, that’s poetry’s defining element, the power that engages me most complexly. I mean the full range of prosodic values: [Robert] Duncan’s idea of “the tone leading of vowels,” or the rise and fall of syllables, or measure, repetition, rhythm—all of what I call the countersemantic aspects of poetry. Of course, in the end, there are no countersemantic aspects; that’s the point. They all add to the semantic complexity of the poem. The experience you call incantatory or casting a spell is fundamental to my work. It’s sound in conversation with fixed meaning, and that tension is dynamic. It can bring you to non-quotidian attention, into another order of meaning, the way mantras or chants or even songs do. And for sure I read my poems aloud, and they’re not complete until I’ve understood them through my body.
CH: Reginald Shepherd writes that in your poem “Multiple Heart,” the prose pieces “enact the intercourse of sexuality and textuality that is so central to [your] poetry.” He explains how you deploy “song [as] sex, the poem is a wedding of writer and reader.” What’s your personal sense of your relationship to the reader?
AS: In “Narrativity,” I used erotic terms for describing the writer-reader dynamics of narrative versus lyric [poetry]. I decided that narrative performs an act of seduction, which is to draw the reader into person and place via the transparency of language: Come to me! And then the counterforce, lyric, is display. I imagine a peacock, or one of those crazy birds building its magnificent nest: Look at me! Just look at this! That’s also a mating call, a dazzling act, a spell.
CH: I’ve been trying to encapsulate your career but in a way that’s not reductive, which is difficult because it’s complex and quite distinguished. It’s not an easy career to map—
AS: —It wasn’t easy to live [both laugh].
CH: What I find is a journey that has what seem like distinct periods, where you’ve moved from one mode to another—from a more accessible lyric of the social, sexual, and even personal, to a poetry increasingly experimental, working in collage or “derived language” (most notably in “City of Men”); a period of 15 years where you wrote prose poems, and then a recent return to lineation in Involuntary Lyrics [Shurin’s previous book], for which you use the end words from Shakespeare’s sonnets. This might make it seem like you’re moving away from the personal, but I think something else is happening. When I read lines like “I make you make me sing” [“CII” from Involuntary Lyrics] and “O how the mind your mouth sheds /discovers me to myself!” [“Raving #8, O Dear” from Giving up the Ghost], I wonder if you’re creating new spaces or new modes for the personal. That might be the big contribution I see you making throughout the work. Has your view of how poetry can articulate the self—and the slipperiness of identity—changed over the course of your career? Are you using poetry to find new ways to express the self?
AS: By the time post-structural or deconstruction theory entered the discourse, probably the issues around identity for me were most related to gay issues. And that’s how my essay “A Thing unto Myself” started. I was noticing to what extent issues of the self were crucial to gay identity: how the act of coming out is like becoming another person or self, and, especially in the early days of gay liberation, how elements of gay identity were being communally created.
In the ’80s, the concept of the social construction of self was in the air, and for me it was a natural territory for social and political investigation. But I soon became interested in exploring issues of “self” formally, rather than rhetorically, in my poetry. And I was especially interested in the ways that gender functions as a language construct. So I started to investigate positions of voice in the poem—first, second, and third person—and I started to splay them so that I could inhabit subjectivity through all persons at the same time, and even both genders at the same time. Self and gender were literally under construction. Eventually that gave me the freedom to use the personal voice in poetry in a very flexible way, to float freely between actual personal experience and the imagined, to speak as a man or woman or some hybrid, or just simply as a pronoun. And it helped cement the idea that the speaking subject was going to be fundamental to my work. There’s very little disembodied poetry in my books: I worked too hard to make and remake the “person” to let it go.
CH: Is this part of your project to “sustain and remake the Romantic tradition,” to refresh that tradition and bring it into our century?
AS: It is. I should say that, as with all of these reductive statements, most of what happens (at least for a long time) happens after the fact rather than before the fact. You pursue your interests, what I like to call your lures, in poetry—the things that engage and interest you over and over again—and then I think after a while you refine your attention and come to understand what you’re doing.
One of the things I valued most in Duncan’s work was the idea that you read the world like you read a book. There are layers of meaning, and sets of correspondences, and you penetrate the material world to uncover them. You don’t give meaning to the world; you derive meaning from it. So my work with voice and person and sound and body and layering are all part of this process by which you may find what lies beneath the conventions of meaning. That’s kind of post-LSD Romanticism. I haven’t heard anybody say that before. I’m not a post-structuralist, or a post-deconstructionist, or a post-objectivist, but a post-LSD Romantic.
CH: I want to use one of the new poems from Citizen to talk about meaning in your work, to go deeper into this particular conversation we’re having. The poem, “John Said,” comes so close to giving the reader a kind of traditional meaning, but like a lot of your work, it resists traditional meaning. I want to ask about your relationship to meaning by positing what’s probably a too-simple “reading” of the poem: it contains a kind of a post- or pre-coital scene, almost like an aubade, in which the lovers have awakened to desire more lovemaking: “is that you on the bed arms up, legs up, eyes up?—to make a bouquet of parts….” It ends with the mysterious, beautiful lines “Is it you, spindle, unreeling filament, filament, filament in the heat of disclosure tactile attaching invention anew as face-to-face totally occupying space, inhabiting space?” I read the “space” of the poem as the charged, all-important space between two lovers during sex (the space that needs to exist for the rhythms of fucking, as it were, to go on).
AS: First of all, I don’t think what you just described is a simple meaning, and it’s very much the meaning of the poem. Maybe the circumstances are slightly different, but sure, that’s basically the scene. And I’m not trying for there not to be meaning; I want there to be meaning. I just want it to be rich and complex meaning and not reducible meaning, so I think yours is an elegant reading and very much in tune with that particular poem.
I don’t know whether you know, but “filament, filament, filament” is a Whitman phrase from his beautiful poem “A Noiseless, Patient Spider.” He describes the spider spinning filaments of its web, and in the end he says that the soul also sends filaments out of itself “till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere….”[In my poem] it’s embedded with the phrase “his extract and froth,” as well as the body parts you quoted, so the filaments are spun of desire and intimacy. I wanted it to be both emotionally intimate (“face-to-face”) and erotic. There’s a great early gay movie by a filmmaker named Michael Wallin, The Place Between Our Bodies, and there’s this fabulous scene of two young lovers touching each other’s hard-ons, and the pre-cum extends like a three-foot filament—
CH: —Oh my god—
AS: —glittering in the sunlight. There’s that in the poem’s “filament,” absolutely, and there’s also this Whitmanesque sense of a deeper attachment of eros, or the reaching out across space and the face-to-face confrontation in nakedness and in bed.
Some poems have more contained meanings, and in some meaning can’t be locked down. But it’s never a question of there not being meaning; there’s just irreducible meaning. Some poems permit there to be meanings “to be discovered” by the reader, to use another Whitman phrase. And always there’s the test of where language is or isn’t porous, the ongoing awareness of the poem’s process through language, almost like a base note, that keeps the question of meaning alive and won’t let you settle.
CH: Speaking of Whitman, your poem “City of Men” is obviously a touchstone work. There were these moments in which there was no body in the poem, and yet there was sex in the poem….
AS: That’s at the heart of that project. There are all of those intensely passionate and romantic, erotic poems in “Calamus” that don’t have any physiology because all the body parts are foisted off onto the “Children of Adam” poems [two sections of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass]. As you know, the project of “City of Men” was to conjoin those two sections and heal the rift between body and mind. In “City of Men” they’re joined sequentially: one poem derives language from the passionate “Calamus” and then the next from the physiological “Children of Adam.” The sex you feel comes from the juxtaposition. I couldn’t introduce any bodies into the poems derived from “Calamus,” but I could tease the homoeroticism out by jamming in all the body parts from the “Children of Adam” pieces. And those poems, which could have been dry, are given emotional depth from the surrounding “Calamus” ones.
CH: Let’s talk more about the new book, Citizen. Of course, the obvious thing to mention is that Citizen is a return to the prose poem after Involuntary Lyrics, which was lineated. Was there a moment after Involuntary Lyrics when you thought you would continue writing in lines, even though it wasn’t what you had been primarily doing in your career?
AS: When I finished Involuntary Lyrics, I felt very much that I had completed that gesture. And I think I’ve discovered over the last decades that the prose poem suits my temperament rather complexly. It’s capacious: it will hold so many different kinds of modulations. I’m a maximalist, not a minimalist, and my poetry is saturated and interested in saturation; the kind of multiplicities and varieties and trajectories and valences that are afforded by the prose poem just really seem to suit my compositional temperament.
With Involuntary Lyrics, in order to make the versification exciting to me, the torque of the line breaks was so intensified, and I think perhaps I reached my limit of torque. [Both laugh.] The sentence provides so many other means of tension, and Citizen is in love with sentences. As you know, it’s rather drunk on em dashes and ellipses. They permit multiple registers, moments of tension and shifts of focus, pauses, incursions: a whole range of modulations. The sentence—with its proposition or fantasy of beginning and ending, and its storehouse of punctuation and clauses and preconceptions that you can move against—offers so many ways of moving through the poem complexly and increasing its semantic density.
CH: Can we talk about your friendship with Robert Duncan, both a close friend and a crucially important influence? What was it like to experience Duncan the man as friend and Duncan the poet as influence? Not many poets I know have had that gift.
AS: I was very lucky, and I was young enough that I could appropriately worship him as a poet. He was such a peculiar and complicated man [laughs], it was a little easier not to worship him that way. He was much more approachable as a poet. Also, he was my graduate teacher at New College of California. My work-study job there was to be Robert Duncan’s archivist. I put all of his correspondence and all of his manuscripts in order for a couple of years. I was graced to have known him and experienced him because, largely, the poet in person was consistent with the poetry on the page … which is to say if you heard him talk, it was monumental, comprehensive, poetic, transcendental discourse.
I had an argument with someone who was describing [Duncan] in some banal, Freudian terms, which I couldn’t bear at all, and I insisted that [Duncan] actually had a transpersonal intelligence, [by which] I mean he had access to all kinds of poetic intelligence throughout history. Maybe that’s what genius is. This guy was just infuriated by what he thought was a sentimental view, but I think it’s as accurate a view as I could possibly have described. If you heard Duncan lecture, or [even] if you talked poetry with him (it was pretty much a one-way discourse), the range of information, the range of citation, and the range of understanding, of how many aspects of poetic meaning are simultaneously contributory—[it] was all active in his immediate person. To encounter this kind of model intelligence was just a phenomenal, phenomenal lesson in poetics, in what the poem could be. It was glorious, and I’m a graced person to have been so intimately exposed so young.
CH: You once said, “The intensity and scope of Duncan’s poetic vision, and his complex surrender to emotion and sensuous measure, granted endless unfolding permission to me in my own poetics.” Are there particular poems of his that mean a lot to you, were instructive to you?
AS: Of course, “The Torso: Passages 18.” That poem is great, first, because it has all that information about the body and gay desire; but secondly, it’s a compressed version of what I call his symphonic sense of composition, of different registers and different orders. You can obviously see a model for my poetry, in which all these tempers are trying to coexist. Mine are more compressed than his, because he was interested in field composition, after all. The space of the page also became part of this symphonic enactment.
I was attracted to his interest in high diction and Romantic vocabulary, to the suggestiveness in terms of content, and (especially when I was just beginning) to a sense of too-muchness, or we might call it the fabulous. If we could import “fabulous,” in all its gay context, into a critical gay vocabulary, there was that fabulous in Duncan that gave me so much, that gave me permission to do what I wanted to do. Attendant to that was his belief in erasing shame. There’s that long discussion in the preface to Caesar’s Gate that for me was completely eye-opening. I didn’t have to manufacture a decorous experience or a decorous self for the poem, ever. To me there’s nothing to be ashamed of, because all experience is part of your material.
CH: Can you talk a bit about how you “write the body” in your work and if you think there’s a gay sensibility when it comes to how gay poets write about the body?
AS: Well, I’m a proud voluptuary. I’ve always thought that in order to come out—it takes so much energy and so much struggle—you have to really, really want to, because all the forces are conspiring to make it not happen. The site of that is erotic, for whatever other dimensions there are, and certainly there are many other dimensions to gay experience. But I believe that the urge behind coming out is fundamentally erotic, so that means there must be a powerful urge in gay men related to the body, [an urge] that’s initial and primary and powerful. That’s always seemed to me a significant factor. However people then pursue their erotic or romantic interest, it has to be dynamic enough for you to move forward and bust through the gates. I think my sense of “writing the body” has that as a core motivation.
CH: Some of your early poems I think are really important. They talk about the “real loving.” One of the poems contains these lines: “I give my life over / to pieces of bodies; by the end / maybe I’ll have loved a whole man.” I think there’s something special being talked about here, at work in that sensibility. Something that needed to be documented about an identity that was more than a sex act.
AS: Part of the context in which those poems were being written, at the very, very early beginning of post-Stonewall poetry, was one in which everybody was [writing about] dicks and ass. I knew that was too easy a solution for my poetry, which does try to stake out a different territory. Even if I thought coming out was initially an erotic act, I knew right away that being gay was going to involve more transformations than just sexual ones.
CH: I like to think of one of your books of prose, Unbound: A Book of AIDS, as very much a poet’s book. And you emphasize that it’s “a book of poetics” and its “process” was a “poetic” one. Is it in many ways less about AIDS than it is about how to write about AIDS? (That idea is, of course, powerfully explored in one of the pieces, “Inscribing AIDS: A Reflexive Poetics.”)
AS: I’d like to think that’s part of it, but it’s more than that. I mean, how to write about AIDS was a real pressure. I couldn’t figure out for a long time how to do it; it was just too overwhelming. So it includes how to write about AIDS, but I still think for me it’s how to find meaning in AIDS, how to find the deeper meanings, poetic meaning—I can’t put it any more succinctly than that. And it’s why I needed to do the work, because it’s what I knew as experience, as communal and interpersonal experience. In other media, what I was seeing about AIDS was memoirs about my lover dying, which were important, obviously…. But “what I knew” was the most elusive material and was the least easily recounted… and maybe in less messianic terms, even for myself, it’s what I needed to do. It’s what I needed to confirm for myself, that there was meaning inside of all of this. And for me, the richest meaning—investigative meaning—is poetic.
CH: Something I struggle with is the idea that a gay reader of poetry is only going to be able to understand a “coming out” poem, or a poem that is clearly about a gay x, y, or z narrative. I think gay readers are smarter than that. I think they can read your work and can be attracted to its play of language alone (in fact, to me there’s something gay or queer about that, because when we’re in language we’re still somehow outside of things). I think there are many kinds of “gay” texts, and not all of them are defined by semantic meaning.
AS: I agree. At least, I write with that hope in mind. What’s also true is that there shouldn’t be any reason a straight person couldn’t read this and couldn’t be informed about desire from reading my, or other gay writers’, work.
As we talk, it occurs to me that I have my own sense of how I want my poetry to live, and where I want it to live, and what kind of audience I want, and especially in relation to the idea that all of this gay stuff is named and all this stuff is part of my experience. If I am a whole person, then every heterosexual reader can read [my work] and find meaning in it too. They are as much my audience as anybody else. It doesn’t matter if it’s two guys making love; everybody is my audience because that’s real and that happens. It’s human experience! You either want human experience or you don’t want human experience. If you read poetry, you want human experience.