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Suspension, evasion, and inversion: a conversation with Ken Babstock
SQ: Ken, when you read in Montreal in the fall I found myself wanting to close my eyes and be carried away by the sound of the poems. This doesn’t happen often enough in poetry readings—for me in any case. What I was responding to, I think, was the sense that if I could remove myself by half I might hear pure sound. How deliberate has this movement been for you, and are you still on that trajectory?
KB: I’ll admit outright that my ear has (at times against my better judgement,) long been an over-riding directive, or measure of where a poem wants to arrive. I immediately, reflexively, want to qualify that statement by making it clear my ear does not consistently demand ‘beauty’ in the sense of euphony. I’m as often, I think, hearing a dissonance, or thickness of contrapuntal noise, or simply interference that wants foregrounding. But whatever the sonic occasion, yes, it’s always felt like the only way forward through a line, and then through a turn into the succeeding line, and so on, out toward a constructed field of sound.
Now anyone reading this will immediately recognize the attendant risks, and I think it’s an old debate that won’t be resolved anytime soon; I can maybe dramatize how it has played out in my own work. Your own formulation, “if I could remove myself by half,” points toward the predicament really effectively. What I mean is, I would never want “remove myself” to be an unproblematic option for the reader, just as it’s never been an easy option in the work. I’ve certainly dreamed the dream of pure sound, abandoning altogether the attempted interface with the demon “Meaning” but I simply cannot effectively mute the little authorial tyrant (likely a child, but so be it) who compulsively seeks meaning, seeks to make meaning. I may be weak-willed. So a field of sound in which live the field mice of meaning. They don’t need to be caught, killed, or even seen. Just ‘known’ to be there. Somewhere.
And now I should say that really ‘hearing’ a poet’s work is often time-contingent. Many poets whose work I dearly love now, I first read some years ago and couldn’t ‘hear’ what was going on. I’ll avoid the long list, but this is to say meaning, I suspect, is deeply entwined with, or embedded in, sound.
SQ: To clarify, I don’t think I want to remove myself either, but the delight of taking language so far out on its leash. Even a poet such as Dennis Lee in Un and Yes/No, to my mind at least, doesn’t remove self from the equation. In fact the more he breaks down what we think of as “meaning’ in a poem, the more emphatically human and lyric the poems seem. In any case, yes, I love the image of field of sound and mice of meaning… I just asked Lisa Robertson about line breaks, and now I ask you. Your use of enjambment is gorgeous, so compact that it seems almost spring loaded. And not that it’s calling attention to itself. In a poem such as “So Hush A Mask” it’s both springing and when one takes a closer look, utilitarian. That is to say none of the breaks scream “line break” but together they all exemplify a kind of tongue and groove maneuver, something I would describe as a key aspect of your work—as it is for Muldoon, for example, and Heaney. Does this seem right?
KB: I think it’s fair enough to say “key aspect.” I do admire the illusion of the fall, the cascade, the uncontrolled skid, the hydro-planing on new rainfall that occurs over there on the right-hand side. Sometimes there’s such shearing and heaving I can feel it in the musculature holding my eyeballs in place. I’m speaking of other poets here. Yes, Heaney and Muldoon were enormous for me in my twenties. I have a very clear, distinct memory (it has duration, the memory, which I find bizarre) of failing miserably at a poem all afternoon many years ago. I was collapsing into this failure, really emptying out, when I started to re-read Heaney with entirely altered eyes; in fact, it was like putting my ears where my eyes were, or an eardrum where the retina was. I went back to the poem having stopped intending for certain rhetorical things to occur. I simply wanted to mimic sound and movement. I wanted to achieve the same topography, or twill, or texture right up there on the surface. Suddenly the verbs were moving, the qualifiers were string instruments, and there were vertical lines, webs, of connection up and down through Heaney’s vowels. And then Muldoon; well, the interest is ongoing. There’s no end to it. “Duration” enters into the game, along with suspension, evasion, and inversion, in ways I’m still trying to understand. And an open gamble with disassembled order which I found liberating.
Ok and so why “key?” There’s a paradox here, insofar as line break is the one technical aspect of composition that’s always come naturally. Fluidly. It’s certainly related to stresses, to rhythm, but also to image and sense. There’s a reliance on intuition, but I will say I’ve tried to get some of the same charged silence that occurs in the blank space after any successful poem’s conclusion to also appear in lesser sparks out past the line’s end. It’s something like calibrating just how much your line can reasonably bear, and then getting out with some dignity intact. I do want to get out (from inside the line) before the shame arrives, or at least before it accumulates.
SQ: I’ve been thinking about your work with the sonnet, Ken. Those few in Mean, and then the more “broken” ones in Days into Flatspin. Can you talk about your relationship to the sonnet? Is it the history, or the constraint, or both, or something else, that draws? Do you feel there is more you can do with it?
KB: Thinking back to those first two books, I could trace a shift in influences played out in the few sonnets. Ireland and England still present, with the moons of Berryman and Lowell rising. Those broken, dissolving, sonnets in Days into Flatspin certainly had Berryman and others tinkering with the engine. I’ve been told it was obvious I’d been reading Berrigan then, which I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t. I have since, but relations to Berrigan in that sequence are accidental. I kept most of the ‘rules’ but strayed from the standard four/five beat lines. Just wanted a manic, jittery quality of false confidence in the tone; and the shifts in speaking voice, the subverting or mocking of preceding lines’ semantic content are likely ‘huffy Henry’s’ doing.
What’s to say about the sonnet. I am attracted to its no-holds challenge to composition. It says, “Here’s a squarish block of text on a white field in which something or, more likely, nothing will occur. Are you up to it?” It gets strange here as, obviously, there is no real “block of text” anywhere present before one writes a sonnet–except perhaps there is; a blast shadow from history, a kind of dimly perceived ‘dark matter’-sonnet that can serve as a vessel or threat or foil. Not wanting this to shade into an ugly species of existential athleticism, there’s a game or risk or pressure inherent in knowing the end is on its way. Which is to say constraint does appeal to me, as does history; and perhaps more so the volta. You walk into the stagnant murk and that leech just seems to find the soft flesh between line 8 and 9, give or take.
My guess is the sonnet—some sonnet-kernel—will stay with me for a while. I would like to do something related to those shattered things in Days into Flatspin over a longer space. It’s present again in Airstream Land Yacht; the formally obvious sonnets, “Aurora Algonquin” and “Engineer and Swan,” but also the series interspersed throughout the collection, “Essentialist,” “Pragmatist,” “Materialist,” etc. are each made of 14 tercets. Which perhaps really strays into “Who cares?” territory, but the frame helped me see through the creeping conceptual drift into each poem’s relation to the others, and on into the book’s central obsession over materialist views of consciousness.
SQ: You enjoy working with received forms, but your relationship to form seems more fluid, more about the way you can make it bend to suit your ear. And in Airstream, you seem to have found a comfortable, if tense form. I say tense because though the form seems to suit, it’s far from static. Is this something you discovered over time, gradually?
KB: If we take “received forms” to mean everything from rhymed quatrains to Whitman’s anaphora and long, free stride, then yes, “tense” is a good descriptor of my relation to them. At times this seems to me to be a function of being a Canadian poet; performing these backward raids into larger, more powerful traditions; warping them slightly to suit experience and vernacular, and pushing them up against asymmetrical subject matter. Other times it’s more just a result of personal aesthetic agitation. The tercets begin to chafe at the wrists so subsequent poems open out into free verse, etc. Looming disenchantment, disappointment, a great sense of incompleteness, these all bounce the work around inside the parameters of what I feel capable of. If the results are a little anarchic and uncontrolled, I’m ok with that; it allows more opportunity for any form, or evidence of order, to show its cracks, to find energy in unstable structure.
SQ: There is some discussion over the single versus the long poem, or thematic poem, or sequence. Is there necessarily a deep aesthetic argument to made for one “over” the other? Your own work is both of the single poem, and of the larger thematic project. Would you consider a book length poem?
KB: There likely is a forceful argument to be made for each over the other; however, what could that amount to? The future may end up making a case for one being more reflective or responsive to ‘our’ historical moment, but that’s not really our concern. I love both, and would pay you money right now to find myself in the midst of a book length poem. The collection I’m finishing consists of more discrete poems, but also more longer discrete poems, so it’s possible I’m building to something. The cumulative power of sustained pieces is really appealing. The utterance and the silence hand in hand over a vast landscape. Recent work I’ve seen in this vein has me entranced: Lisa Robertson, of course, Ben Lerner, Aaron Kunin, Christian Hawkey (somewhere in between). Then I’ll look at poems by Peter Gizzi, Karen Solie, August Kleinzahler, Paul Farley, etc. and think we’re all fine. Keep going. We need each other.
I’ve collected three or four ideas for longer things that I haven’t been able to commit to: the old snaggle over what’s a viable idea and what’s a gimmick. I shared one (Auden, fMRI’s, 3-D) with Christian Bök who warned me if I didn’t do it, he would. I’ll want a percentage on the back end.
SQ: Can we end with a poem?
SO HUSH A MASK
It was a stool or a stump I sat upon. The sky
was white. There had been birds
at one point, in the past, now an aluminum quiet could be heard
gnashing through the upper branches. I
liked it. I thoroughly enjoyed it . . . if that’s not
going too far. For a while I thought
of how my own face looked, reflected in the display screen
of an instant teller around midnight; a green
please insert your card floating like war paint
just above where my mouth should be. I bored of that soon
and placed the toe of one shoe
on top of the other, which made me feel humble, a bit quaint,
as though I should be shelved next to pillows painted with ducks
and fisherwives smoking pipes
carved out of balsam. When another thought got ripe
I shooed it away before the smell hit. Luck
appeared in the long grass and glistened like Emily’s
snake. Would you have paid any more
attention, what with such crystalline inner calm? The letter from Bangor,
Wales, waiting to be opened? The families
of raccoons headed to church?
I didn’t mean to sound testy; it’s just
I’ve been here a while, and your face had that mild crunch
of disdain—Is that a helicopter? This can’t last.
But perhaps can be altered a titch so as to include
more than the principal and his attendant shades. Their mood
dictates when they show or don’t so bugger
them if they’re not here for the planning stage; bigger
fish to fry, pressing engagements, a man about a cudgel,
all that dreck. So, let’s see. Do we
count in the blasted regions east of here where the poor huddle
in their thundering shacks? Do we?
Ken Babstock is the author, most recently, of Airstream Land Yacht (Anansi, 2006) winner of The Trillium Prize for Poetry, finalist for the Governor General’s Award, The Griffin Prize for Poetry, and The Winterset Award. Earlier collections include Mean, winner of The Atlantic Poetry Prize and The Milton Acorn Award, and Days into Flatspin, winner of a K.M. Hunter Award and finalist for the Winterset Prize. All three books were listed in The Globe and Mail’s Books of the Year. His poems have won Gold at the National Magazine Awards, appeared widely in anthologies in Canada, The US, and Ireland, and have been translated into French, German, Dutch, Serbo-Croatian and Czech. You can read his response to my ongoing questions about reviewing over here.