Poetry News

Poetry as Self-Help: An Interview With Eleni Sikelianos

By Harriet Staff

"The title of Eleni Sikelianos's latest collection of poetry, Make Yourself Happy, is a timely imperative for the new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves," writes Srikanth Reddy for BOMB. Make Yourself Happy, published early last year, is Sikelianos's fifth book from Coffee House.

"Whether Sikelianos is writing about making a paper globe, making a family, making a statement, or making yourself, she surveys the field of human endeavors to find new prospects for care amid precarious political contexts," writes Reddy, who interviewed the poet. An excerpt from their conversation:

SR On the subject of genre, the book's title—Make Yourself Happy—invokes this much-reviled "sub-literary" commercial genre, not without irony, but it also allows you to think through the relations between autopoiesis ("make yourself") and something like Aristotle's philosophical sense of "the good" (i.e., happiness). Whitman's "Song of Myself" is, in many ways, a self-help poem—or a poem that shares your concern with the care of the self—but it's also an irreverent critique of the genre formations within the dominant literary culture of Whitman's time. How does this complex of concerns—self-help, autopoiesis, happiness—come together now, in retrospect, for you as a writer now that you've finished the book?

ES What do we mean by self-help? I don't know, but I do know that poetry helps me all the time, to remember and question what being human is, to feel the articulations of where it might be in space, in relation to other living and nonliving things, to the political, the whole proprioceptive range. The poetry that most draws me tends to allow me to feel what's at stake, which is both pleasure and pain.

We resist the self-help genre because it often ignores complexities of the world-problem. If you're helping yourself, what happens to the Other? I spent many years vehemently rejecting the notion of poetry as therapy. And I still do, because above all, it's an art. But, at its most potent, it also does make things happen—it changes the writer and the reader.

I am definitely for claiming poetry as a space that does things. I am for claiming poetry as a space for most things we think it shouldn't or doesn't do. Poetry is contested space, and the battles about what is allowed to go in and stay out are important. For example, there's been an anti-didactic sentiment in the so-called experimental American poetry community for a while, and I understand where it's coming from. Maybe at our most generous we could say it's coming from an anti-hegemonic stance. It seems cousin to the ban on epiphany, which might be linked to the late 20th-century obsession with the materiality of the poem, of which we still feel the remnants. I am for that, but I am also for allowing things to appear out of the nonmaterial world.

One of the forces behind the poems in the first section was a desire to reclaim the pleasure of the poem, the hedonistic experience of sound and light and movement as they rush through language, in that sensorial buoyancy that, for me, is singular to poetry. To celebrate and to sing. (Whitman and I share a birthday, by the way!) We are living in an era when we have to reflect a lot of darkness, when the poem needs to work through a lot of calamity. Anne Waldman has recently referred to Agamben's notion of looking into the darkness of our times, using darkness as a generative rather than a privative space. That's important. But I wanted to rekindle that space of joy in the poem, for myself. But then of course Hedon gatecrashes and smashes up Eden.

Poetry is an original anti-growth movement, plowing back into itself, surviving "in the valley of its making," to quote Auden. It is an original autopoeitic art form.

If poetry isn't allowed to be self-help, how will it survive?

Please read on at BOMB.