Q & A: Rae Armantrout

Are paragraphs like—or unlike—the stanzas of a poem?

I don’t see a stanza in a poem as being equivalent to a paragraph. A stanza can be enjambed and a paragraph, by definition, cannot. Since the start of so-called “free verse,” the stanza, like the line, has been an intuitive unit of measure. That said, in my poem, “Paragraph,” each section (as opposed to stanza) does seem to come from someplace new, not directly connected to what came before.

I’m interested in “para” as a prefix, as in para-professional but also paradox. (Originally there were several such words in the poem. When I revised them out, I didn’t change the title.) If “graph” refers to writing, then “paragraph,” in this sense, is beside writing or parallel to it. “Para” serves as qualifier or mediator.

Lytle—who is he?

Lytle is the poet and nyu professor Lytle Shaw. We had an interesting conversation last fall in which he remarked that “immediacy,” by which he meant something like a presentation of daily experience, was no longer available to poets of his generation. It’s my little joke to have included this snippet of our real, “daily life” conversation in a poem. I used Lytle here as an example of one of the “voices in your head” the poem refers to. I don’t think it’s important that readers know who Lytle is. I included the name because of the way it sounds in that line.

The poem mentions Thriller and Michael Jackson; what kind of music was in your mind—if there was any—when composing the lines of this poem? How does music mark the passage of time for you, if it does?

I seem to mention music occasionally in my poems, usually popular music. I’m interested in why certain things are popular. I also mention movies and television. “Record breaking Thriller / dance attempt” is a phrase I either read in a magazine or heard on tv—I can’t remember which. The phrase struck me as somehow telling. “Record breaking” and “attempt” are actually rather sad qualifiers to the dance and the thrill. They abstract the possible experience. I think the whole poem deals with the way in which experience is mediated, the ways in which we have “para” experience.


This poem originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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