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Catherine Wagner & Rae Armantrout Talk Shop
Catherine Wagner interviewed Rae Armantrout for Poetryeater: “Whatever their surface differences in sensibility, Wagner’s curiousity and vim for the watch-fine mechanics of Armantrout’s diverse body of work and Armantrout’s meticulous and flexible approach to poetry is fascinating.” About Armantrout’s delivery of her poems:
…But your actual questions were about the way I perform the poems. You wanted to know why I read through the section breaks without saying something to indicate them. I think it’s because I don’t want to ruin the rhythm. That’s true with the numerals. I don’t think anyone actually says “asterisk” when there’s an asterisk in his/her poem. And you also asked about my presentation of my “subjectivity” or attitude when I’m reading. I guess I’ve gotten more expressive over the years. You wonder whether I used to be a bad reader. I don’t know. I think my cohort and I were trying to distance ourselves from the over-dramatic poetry voice, the voice of the proclaiming bard, right? That may have led to a flatter delivery. But, in my mind, I’ve always heard different voices and tones in my work—not all of them really mine, except that I make them mine by appropriating them. Without really thinking about it, I’ve started to allow myself to speak in those voices, a bit anyway, when I read.
On narrative and metaphor:
…In your poems there isn’t much that stays non-metaphorical for long enough for it to participate in narrative, or maybe it’s that narrative stops when a correlative is located, often through a play on words—your poems move “aside” (“All that aside!”) crabwise, associating different categories. Yet you often start with what feels as if it could be a story: “It begins as a polyp” (“Representative,” Just Saying). Could you still think of your poems as anti-short-stories?
That’s a really interesting observation. Besides “Anti-Short Story” I have two early poems titled “Fiction”—one in The Invention of Hunger and one in Precedence. I don’t really dislike narrative. (I certainly read fiction) Ok, maybe I am a bit ambivalent about narrative. I was certainly suspicious of the family stories I grew up with—and, when I’m attempting to tell a story, I have a sense of how much I’m forgetting or leaving out. Maybe my suspicions about “true stories” have dampened my narrative impulse. I don’t think it’s really true that most of my poems begin with a snippet of narrative—but there are narrative moments in most of them. Actually, those narrative moments are probably allowed to develop most expansively when they are based on dreams. But the narrative does tend to get derailed or knocked sideways and, as you say, that tends to happen when I notice or concentrate on the ambiguities or the different possibilities of the words themselves. Quite often the proto-narrative is deflected into metaphor.
I am obsessed with metaphor, I suppose, but only in the broadest sense of the term, not metaphor as a rhetorical device—a way to describe thing A (real, stable) in terms associated with term B (illusory, unstable). I’m interested in metaphors where the two terms destabilize one another, where the possible meanings are either equally viable or equally unviable. I’m happy when a metaphor like that develops in my work. One place where I think that happens is “Dress Up” in Just Saying.
The first two sections deal with the peculiar qualities of the electron (it can be “dressed” with virtual particles). The third section describes a little girl playing peek-a-boo. It works, if it does, because I’m really interested in the electron and in the girl. One isn’t just a foil for the other. But the two have a certain reciprocity (I hope). They relate but they don’t totally overlap. To say, “The electron, much like a little girl,” would be silly.
I think metaphor is a mistake we can’t help but make—and sometimes I play around with that, like at the beginning of “Still and All” from JS, “Since we’ve grown/it’s reasonable to think/we’re shapeshifters…”
Read the full interview here. Armantrout photo by Sam Hodgson.