Prairie Style: An interview with C.S. Giscombe
Mark: There’s a wonderful anecdote early in June Jordan’s Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood about waiting as a young child for the arrival of a train, that “moaning in the dark,” that “transitory signal from a hidden fire” that “eased its promise into the night.” I seem to be reminded of this Jordan passage every time I read your new writings. The acknowledgements section in your new book, Prairie Style, concludes: “Portions of this poem were written on Amtrak.” And the trains themselves rail their way, so to speak, across the book, particularly in the central (Mid-American?) section, “Inland (…poems about Downstate Illinois),” in works like “Fever” and “A Train at Night” and “Afro-Prairie.” What is it that keeps bringing you back to those modernist machines that roll along on pre-determined tracks?
C.S.: My thanks for your patient reading of my long-winded acknowledgements section. I’d wanted to name Amtrak because my interest in the railroad continues past the romantic images of trains that one sees everywhere, images that the fact of Amtrak is necessarily at odds with. I note of course that Amtrak as a business makes use of (and does spur on) the nostalgia over rail travel—they use it as a selling point. Amtrak wears the mask of some sort of old imagined or imaginary elegance but the mask is rather obviously a tired old mask. The name itself—Amtrak—betrays our worst nominative tendencies: it’s one with Kleenex and Miller Lite.
But part of what I like about the railroad is that at core—behind the mask—it’s not sentimental; it’s a business that’s evolved over the last couple of centuries and it still uses the same physical superstructure. The railroad business is continuous. The Rockville Bridge over the Susquehanna at Harrisburg was built in 1902, still used by Amtrak; also in Pennsylvania, the Starrucca Viaduct, over the wide valley of the creek of that name, completed in 1848, still used by the Norfolk Southern; the gorgeous Hell Gate Bridge over the East River, linking Queens and Manhattan, was completed in 1916, still used by Amtrak. Implicit in that list is another thing I like about the railroad—that it’s intimately connected to features of land and water, the stuff that is, the stuff that defines. “Geography’s irreducible in the world, a fact, opaque,” I said once and then, “Railroads describe it.”
And all this stuff is profoundly racial as well—railroads divide and define cities. Note that a tenet of urban sociology is the idea of the “natural boundary”—neighborhoods are created by (and their separateness is maintained by) rivers, hills, etc., but also by railroads, hence the phrase, “wrong side of the tracks.” So a railroad, in town, is itself a natural boundary or has that value or tends to have that value. I’m typing this in my parents’ house on the West Side of Dayton, Ohio, the neighborhood where I grew up, black Dayton—the West Side is and always has been the residential area where the railroads are; the West Side is really several neighborhoods but the tracks and trains brush up against people’s houses over here in black Dayton more than anywhere else in town. This is the vista I became familiar with at an early age, this consciousness is a huge part of my railroad sense.
Mark: Architecture (and its relation to home, to location and dislocation)—from Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Usonian” designs to Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes —plays an increasingly significant role in your new work. What is it about built place and habitation, particularly in the Midwest that is so much the focus of Prairie Style, that allows it to act as both a fulcrum for and metaphor within your poetic practice? And why, as you write in “I-70 between Dayton and East Saint Louis, Westbound Lanes,” is property “a measure of elimination”?
C.S.: For me, habitation has, within it, a whole slew of unsaids and relations. There’s the cultural value of owning your own home (that familiar phrase); and then there’s your house’s “real” value, the ever-changing market value—websites’ll tell you what your place is worth in US dollars. What can I get for it? Well, that depends (as the real estate truism goes) on location, location, location. It depends on the neighborhood, on the place’s proximities and juxtapositions, on its relationship to other human settlement. When you market your house or your apartment you’re also marketing that other human settlement—who are you going to see on the street as you disembark from your new address? At this moment—the moment of this question—the issue of marketability places the human and the habitation on the same level.
And—this in response to your concern with “poetic practice”—I’m thinking of poetry as a gift economy; that is, I’m thinking of the worthlessness (conventionally speaking) of poetry as property. This is, I think, a profound strength that poetry has, its off-the-grid existence. Sometimes I hear ambitious people talking about marketing their poems.
Property as “a measure of elimination”? In an apocalyptic dream I wrote down in the 1980s I saw a slogan printed and nailed to a fencepost: “What you own can be taken from you.” Or, of course, it can just walk off one day. Intellectual property can give you the slip.
Where do we live? And who is this “we”? What’s the range of assumption behind the question? Who’s included? Who’s excluded? Increasingly I’m finding myself interested in range, in how variation takes place over a geographic space—I’m thinking of populations—human and otherwise—and customs and identifications and, God knows, landscape. Much of the “place” of a middle section of this Prairie Style book, the Indianapolis poems, comes from the neighborhood in which I stayed in that city—the Near North Side, with its in-progress gentrification efforts, its influx of whites to the streets of Arts and Crafts houses in which black people live now (or were living in 2000 during my sojourn in Indy). The shape of the range fluctuates and neighborhood—one of the big topics in my head when I look back over Prairie Style—speaks to this, I think. I hope.
Mark: I’ve written earlier here on Harriet about what I called a “NAFTA Superhighway Poetics,” a poetics of vertical mobility across the continent that is not solely an east-west “American” poetry but a north-south North American (or larger) one. This has certainly been (to me) one of the most engaging and inspiring parts of your own expansion of poetics in books like Giscome Road and Into and Out of Dislocation, where particularly British Columbia and Jamaica inhabit and in many ways drive the poetics. Perhaps that’s part of the challenge you’re issuing poets in “Afro-Prairie” when you write, “Everybody wants to be the singer but here’s the continent”? Do we need to be singing beyond the nation-state to larger forms, systems, geographies, et al?
C.S.: I read your question and immediately remember two things: one is hearing Michael Manley talk about the rise of multinational corporations, this at a lecture at Cornell early in the 1980s, the first time the shifting nature (or shifting definition) of nation—and its conflation with big business, long the thing that the gangster films, the film noirs, had been metaphor for—had been brought to my attention. The second event was my own travel to Jamaica in the mid-1990s and meeting people there who told me that Michael Manley was a white man, a Jamaican certainly enough, but white (or and white). Which had not been my understanding as I watched him in that room in Uris Hall.
I see these two events as reminders to me, or signals of my burgeoning understanding that borders are flexible—national ones as well as racial ones. Or that the flexibility and interesting uncertainty that I’d always understood about race was even bigger than I’d imagined and that nation touched it with a limber finger. What’s interesting of course is not the border itself but statements about it, approximations of it, attempts to describe it as well as the way that it’s constructed. I’d wanted to “kit-bash” the book some, to stick what America refers to as “our” southern and northern neighbors (and who is this “we”?) into a writing project about the Midwest. And we’re back again to that focus on neighborhood.
Mark: Your “prairie,” unlike the prairie’s construction in much classic literature and contemporary poetry, contains multitudes. One of the “Prairie Style” poems (62), for example, opens with an epigraph from Emma Lou Thornbrough’s The Negro in Indiana (“…to designate a person with any discernible amount of Negro blood”), moves across the racialized neighborhood (“it starts because of the neighborhood”), and ends with that marker of Capital, “property”. What about the relations between poetry and race and property across the prairie do you want readers to understand or question as they read your new book?
C.S.: I see that poetry, race, property, and geography are not one but form a very rag-tag and uncertain army, one with shifting ranks and alliances. What’s interesting to me here is that it’s possible or even necessary (at least for me) to read each one in the context of the others. This is, of course, not a new thing in the world—when I look back over the book and pause over the poets I quote (Gwendolyn Brooks, William Carlos Williams, Kamau Brathwaite, others) I see the jagged unexpectedness of their work, the big incorporations. I mean here that I see the range and worldliness that their language bangs up against—I address their work with mine. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and the Robert Taylor Homes were starting places for me in terms of the book—when I taught in downstate Illinois my black students were eager to let me know that they didn’t come from the Robert Taylor Homes. I admired the long lines of Prairie School architecture. But the Robert Taylor Homes is a horizontal project as well and the two things sit in uneasy juxtaposition in my mind.
I note Thornbrough’s qualifications alongside her cautious definition work. What does it mean to be black? Well, that varies from place to place. Pit this against NAFTA.
Mark: Finally, toward the end of the book there’s a piece titled “Republican National Convention 2000” that seems to have its finger on the “previous” button on the television remote, flipping back and forth between political coverage and Caligula. If your movie-going self could program films to run simultaneously with the 2008 Republican and Democratic conventions, what films would you choose? And why?
C.S.: Watching John McCain on some late-night talk show I found myself thinking of Young Frankenstein. McCain’s wish to distinguish himself from his dear old O.G., George W. Bush, put me in mind of Gene Wilder correcting people as to the pronunciation of the name—“It’s Franken-steen,” he would say. And, as the monster, Peter Boyle’s all id to Wilder’s less-than-completely-in-charge super-ego; the project of the flick is Wilder trying to teach the monster to at least look reasonable, to put on the ritz.
I work a bit with the Frankenstein myth in the book—maybe that’s why it comes so readily to mind here in response to your question about the Republicans. What’s more interesting of course is the transformation of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” itself—danced marvelously by Wilder and Boyle—from its 1920s minstrel beginnings (see Harry Richman’s performance on YouTube) to the 1940s version (the one in the movie) that invites listeners to “Come let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks.” Minstrelsy’s there, the ancestor to American entertainment spectaculars—the rippling flags and dance numbers—and the convention ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t a spectacular.
For the Democrats? The movie on the other channel has to be Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 low-budget flick that’s so smart and so scary and that is still—in my humble opinion—the best integrated movie of all time. I’m sure you know the plotline—young white brother and sister drive out to central Pennsylvania to put flowers on their father’s grave and are set upon by animated corpses desiring to eat them. The woman escapes to a farmhouse and there meets a young black man played by Duane Jones: introduced fifteen minutes into the movie, he fills the screen as the unambiguous and obvious hero, a dashing man in rolled-up sleeves with a plan for survival. Others arrive; much mayhem ensues and there’s humor around media coverage of “the epidemic”; and much irony. Through it all Duane Jones strides like a lawyer from Harvard. He’s resourceful, eloquent and did I mention that he was black? On him—in the big world of the movie—the fraught continuation of fraught civilization depends. The living dead of the title gather outside the barricaded farmhouse. Who are they? Choose your metaphor: terrorists, harbingers of environmental catastrophe, hucksters, brain-dead mall rats, gluttons, anti-intellectuals, the homeless. What’s happening in the little neighborhood inside the farmhouse? Inside you get the depiction and performance of tremendous argument, not much sex. If you’ve seen the film, try not to think about the way it ends.
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants, Shut Up Shut Down (afterword by Amiri Baraka), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), all from Coffee House Press. His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan...