Saturday, April 11, 2009

Oversized Strangeness:
An interview with David Blair

                …but Ishmael bobs up out
of wreckage. With oversized strangeness,
you will too. (“Students Sleeping on Trains”)

David Blair grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His poems have appeared in The Boston Review, Ploughshares, Fence, Verse, The Greensboro Review, The Harvard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Southern Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Fulcrum, and the anthology Zoland Poetry. A graduate of Fordham University and the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Blair is an associate professor at the New England Institute of Art. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with his wife Sabrina and their daughter Astrid.

GL: The title of your book Ascension Days refers to Jesus’ literal departure from the world, and this biblical story represents, I think, a fundamental spiritual impulse of ours: to escape the world without having to die. It is an interesting symbolic cornerstone for this collection since your poems appear to be so fascinated by and committed to the terrestrial. In fact, these poems are full of an almost religious admiration for the world below: “Turn off the lights / because anything could happen” and all of its strange quotidian miracles. Why, then, chose a title with so many otherworldly connotations?

DB: My reason for titling the book Ascension Days had a lot to do with my feeling that the title sounded celebratory. On the whole, I was happy when I was working on the poems in it—so many poems written based on things that I saw while driving around with Sabrina. The poems in this book are optimistic about the imagination and the ability and good of capturing consciousness in words, even in the midst of the massively unpleasant and tragic circumstances of contemporary life. This has been a terrible decade, but there has been a lot of work for satirists.

Broadly speaking, I don't really see much of a contradiction between the terrestrial sensibility and the spiritual sensibility. For me, that goes back to studying philosophy in a department with an old-fashioned core of Thomism and Aristotelian naturalism. For me, it was a lot harder to make Aristotle and Plato fit together than it was to read Aquinas' commentaries on Aristotle and Walt Whitman at the same time, in terms of attitude towards the physical world. So escaping the world never occurred to me as some sort of thing that could cause "ascension" such as appreciating sensation and history. I thought of the title's mock-apocalyptic possibilities, and I thought of how it suggested spiritual enthusiasm as well as worldly striving, and all that seemed to open things up in a lot of directions. Though speaking in the plural evokes time immemorial, one thing I wasn't thinking about was the precise meaning of Ascension Day in theology, such as you would get from Bach's Cantatas for Ascension Day. The direct inspiration for the title poem was being in Austria on the Feast of the Assumption ("Maria-to-Heaven Day" in German) and not being able to get to a travel agency on time to buy tickets for the next day. If I had called the poem "Assumption Days," it would have sounded as if I was talking about people making assumptions about stuff, which would have been all wrong. I wanted to evoke not having a made-up mind beforehand. I also liked that it somehow evoked a world both parochial and arcane.

GL: Many of the poems in Ascension Days seem to spring from a kind of hallucinatory journalistic or anthropological impulse; they report on places and events but often do so obscurely. In some ways they seem to satirize what Robert von Hallberg has called the ‘tourist poem’ of the 1950s, exemplified by James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz and others. Tourist poems often feature urbane, sophisticated readings of distant landscapes and cities, and/or exhibit compunction for America’s (then) increasingly intrusive presence around the world. Your poem titles sometimes indicate that the poems themselves will clarify a place or event for the reader—which is the expectation raised by the title of a tourist poem—before the speaker ultimately embarks on wild associative tangents and breakneck digressions, sometimes leaving your titles in the dust. To what extent do your poems poke fun at urbanity, sophistication and the authority of such postures? And to what extent are your poems interested in sincerely representing your experience of novel events and strange and fascinating places to the reader?

DB: I read this question to my wife Sabrina and our friend Natalie, and Sabrina said, "60-40," which I thought was really funny. I don't have a huge amount of discretionary income for serious tourism or time to be overly ethereal, but a good poet is worth reading regardless of the group that meets his or her consciousness, as long as the consciousness is genuine. Poets writing in English can sometimes be a tad on the dicty side (stuff out there right out of "Fresh Air" by Kenneth Koch), so I guess I'm never poking fun at urbanity and sophistication, and am sometimes poking fun at supposed authority. Of course, poetry is one of the few places people can go with their love of learning, testing its relevance, needing a place for it that takes into account something more like the totality of being a person, and that's one of the things I like about what many contemporary poets do. Richard Hugo makes a good case for always being a tourist in his poems and also in The Triggering Town. A place seen in a poem has to be imagined. I would hope that the titles of my poems seem right for the poems after somebody has read them because titles should do a lot of work, and I feel that poems have subjects and create them at the same time. We should make poems out of experience in ways that create experiences rather than, strictly speaking, represent them, and that we should do so in a way that responds to whatever we perceive about life and other people. I usually believe that a poem is done when it reflects how I literally feel and think about a situation, some state of affairs that is in some way general or at least not just for me. It's also important to have the freedom to write about stuff that happens. The selection of details from life is an act of imagination and also should be, at least initially, of the unconscious. I work a lot from perceptions of people and the observed world and rarely spin poems out of words alone; this usually keeps me among social, cosmopolitan poets, as far as I am concerned.

GL: A lot of first books these days seem to have been written in the space of two or three years, for better or worse. It’s not terribly unusual to see MFA theses beamed straight from grad school to the (oftentimes small) presses. This book, by contrast, came together over a much longer time span. And perhaps as a result, your book reminds me in some ways of Stuart Dischell’s Good Hope Road and Tony Hoagland’s Sweet Ruin (that is, debut books of fully realized voice and vision that were published by poets in their mid-thirties) because your poetic sensibility seems so fixed and mature throughout. But I’m sure you didn’t feel so ‘fixed and mature’ during the years you were putting Ascension Days together. Could you tell me how your work evolved during the years you were writing this book?

DB: You might be more likely to make something that's your own personal fusion of disparate aspects of tradition and contemporary work the longer you have to work at it. In a certain sense, being a teacher-pleaser is a dangerous thing for a writer, and I think that a lot of books that get published and which are boring are somehow well-behaved and immediately easily classifiable—fashionable to somebody—or there is something about the writer's story in itself that makes people want to read the book or champion it. But being thirty-five can be as dull as any other age. I wouldn't say that I am all that fixed and mature right now. I think I got more comfortable with open and straightforward sentiment and more trusting of my own capacity to generate an inner logic. A lot of first books by younger poets are very good—Dorothea Lasky's Awe for instance. Stuart was my teacher in Greensboro, and I started studying with him around the time that Good Hope Road came out. He's one of my favorite people and favorite poets. Before his first book, he published a lot of poems that he did not include in that book, and he could have published a very good book before that one came out, and the world would be richer for an earlier first Dischell book. I love his latest book Backwards Days. I'm less familiar with Hoagland's early work, though I'm a fan of Donkey Gospel and What Narcissism Means to Me. Seeing the development in their work, I'm not sure that either of those poets would regard their first books as fully realized in voice and vision, unless by that you mean hard to classify, drawing on and assimilating all sorts of stuff.

If you're going to try to keep writing after graduate school, Boston is a very good place to be. Within a few years of moving here, I had heard many of my favorite poets read a number of times. There are so many reading series. I also got to know a lot of younger poets from different programs and parts of the country, and I've been lucky to be around people with powerfully articulated and divergent aesthetics. One of my best readers has been the fiction writer Steve Almond, who really believes in communicating stuff to readers and writing in a way that is immediately accessible and compelling. Another great friend and reader has been the poet Peter Richards, who has such a free sensibility and inspiring imagination. When I was showing him a lot of the poems in Ascension Days, he was really involved with the idea of surprising the reader after every line, which is one of the hallmarks of great poetry historically, and something to be seen and loved in the work of Tomaz Salamun, Frank O'Hara, Alan Dugan, Amichai, Ritsos, Williams and Stevens. So if you could get those two going at the same time, that would be something. Both of them are also hysterically funny as individuals, and often in their work. And they also take a lot of risks in their work. I also got a lot of great energy from my other writer friends—Tanya Larkin, Tom Yuill and Sam Witt. Seeing and hearing what David Rivard was doing in his poems was also very helpful for me because he's a great unifier of disparate aspects of things and also a great reader and friend. Fixed and mature—no, neither then nor now. It took me some time to choose what sorts of poems I would pursue. When I was in graduate school and shortly afterwards, I wrote some poems that anticipated where I would be going with my work, but I really didn't have much to say.

GL: In his essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment,” Tony Hoagland (hello again) writes, “there is a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative.” The "Skittery Poem of Our Moment” is "difficult," "elusive," "associative" and broadly critical and distrustful of the “Poetries of Continuity,” according to Hoagland, which features or consists of narrative, description, argument and discursion. Do you find Hoagland’s reading of contemporary American Poetry to be the case and, if so, where do you see yourself in this divided poetic climate?

DB: Almost any essay that diagnoses stuff happening contemporary poetry is bound to be provisional. Tony Hoagland makes a lot of really good points in that essay, but I don't believe the terms are mutually exclusive or meant to be overly useful. The term "skittery poem" for one that is difficult, elusive and associative, that sounds like someone about to pee in his or her pants. I also think that the ultimate effects of narrative poems can be so powerful, so expressive of human predicaments and behavior, that I am not comfortable calling this sort of work "poetry of continuity." For instance, "Bowlers Anonymous" or "How to Like It" by Stephen Dobyns—those could only be said to be continuous in a very strange Congressional district. I don't think the predominant style of younger poets as being so adverse to meaning and stuff because I don't think most of the graduate programs are all that influenced by post-modern poetics when it comes to helping writers develop in terms of craft. Even now, most of the poetry being written by people coming out of MFA programs is sort of pedestrian in its personal reporting. Obviously there has been a renewed interest in picking up where many poets who started publishing in the late 60s and 70s left off when they started writing things more like verse essays (poets like Mathews or Dunn, whom David Wojahn calls neo-Horatian), or playing around with narrative and descriptive modes, and I think that spirit has been very strong and positive for the most part, but it will take a while to realize what work is really valuable and which is merely timely.

People who outright reject narrative or straightforward description in poetry can be tiresome—mainly as people talking about poetry, or on this particular point. Sometimes, an unreasonable attitude helps somebody write really well. Most poets aren't like philosophers or politicians whose goofier ideas go exponential in their effects. A lot of the more energetic younger poets are overly concerned about what's correctly cool. They should realize that poets are mostly sort of dorks, and not in some cute post-grunge and easily accepted way. You can't fight the reductions of marketing with marketing. But people who are utterly resistant to association, elusiveness, and difficulty can be awful. So much of really boring published poetry can be called narrative or straightforward description, and, if overly virtuous, it doesn't exploit well enough the potential of its own mode, and feels self-calcifying. Even if that were not the dominant mode right now, it is still would be the mode that almost everyone, on some level, has to overcome.

That common boring quality of narrative poetry is no reason to avoid Flesh and Blood or Love about Love by C.K. Williams or Ararat. But if you love those books, you should still be able to feel that the poems in Nude Siren by Peter Richards, if you look into it, are really moving at times and hilarious at others, and that all of his poems have a singular, mysterious emotional force. The historical and public poems in Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard are, at first glance, more satisfyingly complex to me than the seemingly low-key, flat family poems in that book. I think this might be an intentional juxtaposition in a wise book where style is part of meaning, and the accessible and narrative mode might stand for a sort of democratic plain style, but I resisted the plain-style poems at first. Poets have to be masters of associative thinking whether or not they write poems that are associative in their overall development. Arid and ego-reinforcing poets are not using the full battery-pack. Alan Shapiro is a master—among other things--of narrative tensions in poems, and yet the soul of his most searing poems is often in their associative moves. The best poets often have more than one kind of poem in them. Take Frank O'Hara—"In Memory of My Feelings" and the narrative and continuous I-do-this, I-do-that poems—or William Carlos Williams—"To a Dog Injured in the Street" and "The Raper of Pasenack." All of these poems, different as they are, are rooted in knowing something about people and being a person. No style can make up for this being absent; any style can attempt to dissemble in its absence. The wonder is that there are so many ways of being expressive. There's no need to take sides. I also think that there are some wonderful poets whom you can't really talk about in terms of continuity or of being skittery, and they probably change the way you read stuff that is very different their own work. Robert Creeley is like that. Two others that come to mind are Fanny Howe and Joseph Lease, both of whom present us with an extremely convincing form of direct and committed speech amid provisional conditions. Where do I see myself in this continuum? I see myself as part of a tradition of economy, and my favorite poets have worked in various modes.

GL: You’re a relatively new father, so I’d like to know how fatherhood has changed your approach to writing?

DB: At first, when our daughter Astrid was an infant, I got a lot of writing done. All those naps and her not being able to walk were a boon to my writing. Things have slowed down since she has learned to run. I used to fill up a notebook every month, and now it takes me two months, and I'm noticing that things are not feeling as finished quite so quickly. I also drive to work now, rather than taking the bus and subway and walking, so I'm experiencing things at different speeds. I still begin my poems the same way though—usually with perceptions about the physical world, and then I sort of move from there. One thing that having a child has convinced me is that human nature is inherently good and loving.

GL: A teacher of mine once said of Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium, and I paraphrase here, that by the time you’ve finished the book, you’re finally qualified to read the book. Is this true of Ascension Days as well? And if it isn’t true, or not true enough, what else does the reader need to know in order to learn how to operate Ascension Days?

DB: I would no sooner compare myself to Wallace Stevens than I would compare myself to Mozart, but his poems certainly taught me how to read them through delight and sound. I think anybody with a good ear for tone can read, anybody who can read sentences, can read poetry. You might be asking me if there is a meaning to all of the poems in the book taken together. I think it's a network, and I think the poems work together. Anybody who has quintessential modern experiences—watching television or movies, looking out the windows of car, planes, trains, airplanes, walking through cities, being happy to stand still once in awhile, can read my poems and most poems. Being alive and having paid some attention to things and to what paying attention feels like are enough to go on to read my book and most contemporary poetry.

GL: Do the poems you have written since the publication of Ascension Days attempt to refine or perfect what you were doing in that book, or are you trying to plunge in entirely new directions? That is, what has become of David Blair since your first book ascended into heaven?

DB: I have a number of poems that I was very happy with before publishing Ascension Days, but which did not go with those poems for thematic and stylistic reasons, and I started working on a second manuscript about a year before the first book got picked up. Many of the poems in Ascension Days are densely packed, extremely terse, with quick movements between thoughts and images, and I feel like I might be getting looser, or maybe would just like to be looser. I'm just working on poems and trying not to be too self-conscious about them. Thanks for these thoughtful questions.