Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Edge of Awake: An interview with Peter Ramos

...Here's the edge of awake--
Cocktails, pack of matches, somebody's face

Watery-familiar. Hi, there, stranger.
Here's to being up for something beautiful,
Regrettable, and sore. ("John Berryman in My Dreams")

Peter Ramos’ poems appear in Indiana Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Verse, The Chattahoochee Review, and Poet Lore. He is the author of one book of poetry, Please Do Not Feed the Ghost (BlazeVox Books, 2008), and two chapbooks: Watching Late-Night Hitchcock & Other Poems (handwritten press 2004), and Short Waves (White Eagle Coffee Store Press 2003).

GL: Your first book of poems, Please Do Not Feed the Ghost, opens with a piece called “John Berryman in My Dreams,” in which, as the reader might expect, you channel Berryman’s dream-song voice. Your own early 21st century version of Henry discovers that now “Henry’s famous, even hip,” easily recognizable to his adorers in Chinese joints and bars, where Henry hunts for sensuous gratification: food, booze, sex. The last three lines of this poem are a come on of sorts, a seedy salutation that makes the reader wonder if he or she should turn back: “Hi there, stranger, / here’s to being up for something beautiful, / regrettable and sore.” It seems like you’re deploying Berryman’s Henry as a brief Virgil for this book in order to color your approach to a number of issues and themes in your work: the relationship between poetry and autobiography, exploring extreme psychological states, and working with short, emotionally violent lyric forms, to name just a few. The poem is efficient for these reasons but it’s also a little dangerous since the person at the door, in this case, isn’t really (not quite exactly) you. So. Why choose this beautiful poem, which is an attempt to veer away from self through impersonation, imitation, etc, as the piece to inaugurate Please Do Not Feed the Ghost? What advantages does writing as Berryman (sort of) provide you when you’re simultaneously trying to welcome and warn the reader?

PR: First, thanks for taking the time to ask me these thoughtful questions. This, like the rest of them, is challenging. To try and make a long explanation shorter, let me say that I didn’t take (reading and writing) poetry seriously until my first year at college. At that time (1987), the Confessionals and the Deep Image poets, even though they were over twenty years old, were still new enough not to be taken up into academia; that is, those few of us interested in poetry read them on our own, in part because they were not assigned in the curriculum. As such, these poets held great power for me: I’m talking about the big ones—Lowell, Plath, Sexton, James Wright, Merwin, Roethke, and maybe Kinnell. And the Freudian idea that you could exorcize your own trauma through art—art as therapy—was still acceptable. Although I moved away from these poets and these ideas, they have always stuck with me in some minor but essential way, un-hip, or outmoded as they seem today. I didn’t discover Berryman until much later, in my PhD program. I’d always known he was loosely associated with the Confessionals, but his work struck me as so much more reliant on art, or artifice—in all the best ways. With Henry and Mr. Bones, he reinforced the idea for me that the “self” in art (which is what we’re talking about, the place where this kind of self matters) has room to be grotesque, clownish, a minstrel, a liar. I think part of the reason the Deep Imagists and the Confessionals went out of vogue—after such a long heyday—was because poets and critics began to doubt what language could do; a skepticism arose I think in the early to mid 1990s, or we might a skepticism about language itself that was there a long time suddenly became accepted by most people in academia and the literary arts: language, at best, can only play. The signifier does not and cannot secure the signified. But I could never accept the kind of poetry that is, by this point, falsely associated with the avant-garde, the stuff one reads in many, many journals today where the language is so mutilated, so reduced to linguistic rubble that one can’t find the tension or essential drama of the poem. I understand that the plain narrative form still holds sway in places like The New Yorker. But that’s like saying rock and roll is still hegemonic and popular since it’s doing so well in Las Vegas. In terms of actual poetry journals, poetic techniques that privilege distance—through irony or cleverness—and narrative opacity, and fragmentation have become pretty conventional. In doses, it’s great. I love Stein, Bernstein et al. But I think too often bad imitations of that style—like nth-generation LANGUAGE poetry—allow people the opportunity to give sloppy work the dignity of being considered innovative. In his Dream Songs, Berryman seems to accomplish both: personal trauma, with its implicit dramatic tension, and a playfulness of language, a “black” humor that unsettles even as it makes us laugh. I get the sense of there being a person connected to all those wild language tricks—someone suffering terribly, and in his case the irony or humor or non-sequiturs somehow bring the reader closer to that suffering without allowing the poems to become false or sentimental. It seems to me then (and of course I am no Berryman) that if Berryman could be a confessional poet by substituting these strange characters for his “self,” then I too could use that technique at an even farther remove. Poet and critic Andy Franzee, in a generous review of my book for the Verse online blog, said that, “Ramos takes up what continues to make [Robert Lowell’s] Life Studies important: a recognition that selfhood is never self-contained, but is a performance that operates within, is even constructed by, the demands of family, desire, and national life—demands which in the work of both poets may take place years before their births.” I’m flattered by the comparison, and I wouldn’t necessarily place myself alongside with Lowell. But I did have this idea in mind when I wrote these poems, including the Berryman one. And he seemed like the perfect “character” to invite the reader into the collection; his persona as it appears in Henry is full of the contradictions I wanted to explore—locked into an influential and necessary but perilous past, charming but destructive, intimate but untrustworthy.

GL: One of my favorite poems in this collection is a generational piece called “Short Waves,” which probes the ancient lyric relationship between suffering and song. It begins with this metaphor: “Lonely son of a drinker, my father slept / uneasily, his throat swollen with a delicate creature—” an avian manifestation of suffering, trauma and music, which later forces the speaker’s father to “cough[] up feathers.” Equally delicate is your treatment of the subject of the illicit encounters between father and son, who are the speaker’s grandfather and father respectively. The language in this poem is so musical, and the imagery so lush, even, at times, artfully typical, that the reader sometimes (and briefly) wonders if these sexual assaults weren’t more spiritually and artistically generative than they were damaging. In the fourth and final stanza of the poem, though, the speaker describes the tender wreckage of his father as he appears in a photograph: “Glazed and drunk, / his face wrung out at last, my father strains. / He almost sings.” Here again, images of personal ruin, pain and beauty are forced to coexist. Why? What is the source of beauty in the speaker’s father’s story, since this man is so clearly a tragic subject? And is this traumatic encounter from the past, and from Venezuela, the most important psychological import that speaker’s forbears have brought to the new world?

PR: That’s an old poem compared to many of the others in the book. And here let me admit that the poem alludes to many autobiographical or “true” events in my life—the father in the poem is very much like my real father, although exaggerated of course. At the time I first began writing this one, I felt that compared to other fathers I knew, mine seemed more withdrawn, more unassuming; he is a child of an alcoholic and at that time he was going to “Al Anon”—for children and loved ones of alcoholics—a helpful experience that also dredged up a lot of his painful past. I kind of experienced that vicariously. I’m not the child of an alcoholic, but we have our fair share on both sides of my family. And I know the symptoms of such children; they often grow up with shame and guilt for things they never did. I’m not sure if your question limits itself to the poem or to my life, but I would say that my father moved to the States when he was thirty, married my mother (an Anglo-Saxon American) and helped raise me and my brother here (in the States). He never spoke Spanish to us because he believed that it would interfere with our assimilating, a forgivable mistake. And I think being the child of an alcoholic played into his own insecurities as a foreigner—this was the 60s and 70s, historically before whatever multi-culturalism trends came into some kind of vogue. So, the lack of translation, as it were, the lack (or limited amount) of Spanish language or culture in our house, comes from a similar kind of insecurity or sense of inadequacy. And when I was writing the poem, I thought that in many ways, my father’s experience of being the son of an alcoholic, as well as an immigrant, took away his dignity. That’s what the beauty remedies; and really I believe poetry has this function of bestowing dignity and visibility and humanity to the otherwise marginalized or invisible: I think of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper,” for example. At the time I was reading poems by Bruce Weigl. He has one called “The Impossible” in which the speaker remembers some horrible event: when he was young, an older man, a stranger, forces him to give the man oral sex. It’s violent, of course, and the older man slaps the child’s face. But then, mysteriously, the speaker remembers the man’s small hands, and the gentle way he held his (the boy’s) head during the act. The last line of the poem is “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.” It’s as if in order to love himself again, the speaker has to love even this most traumatic, violent event he suffered since it—the event and his survival of it—has become such a large part of who he is. I read an interview with Weigl in a journal (Phoebe, spring 1993), and he said that he also considered using the line “Say it beautifully and you make it clear.” I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but looking back, I’m sure I was influenced by that poem when I wrote “Short Waves.” It seems like they’re both trying to do the same thing.

GL: The title of your poetry collection, Please Do Not Feed the Ghost, implies that ghosts are angry, uncivilized quasi-animals, best kept at bay or at least appeased. It also implies that the past, in the shape of ghosts, can become suddenly charged and transformed through the incitements and aggravations caused by the living. Could you tell me a little bit about how you came up with the title for this book, and how it functions as a marquee for the poems therein?

PR: Sometimes it’s hard to explain poems and their titles, and even though this title seems easy to figure out now, I wasn’t sure what it meant when I came up with it. Growing up I felt there were two very powerful spirits that came to me over which I had no control: a life spirit and a death spirit. The one I associated with spring, the other with autumn—a bit cliché, I admit, but it felt real to me. When I later read William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All and then The Descent of Winter, I took both very personally. My title is nothing like Williams’ Descent, but I had the same idea—the loamy earth, like the autumn, calling us back down from the heights, down to the murky, intoxicating bog of memories, nostalgia, the irrecoverable, apparently safe and ever longed for past—it’s really a kind of death wish. The past is no place to linger; obsessively yearning for it is no different than getting drunk every night, or watching hours and hours of bad television, or binging on junk food.

As others have mentioned, the book’s title itself announces a dual and, in a way, contradictory command the poems therein implicitly perform: don’t get caught up in your own past; you must go back and deal with the ghosts of your past in order to live in the present. Turning one’s past into a ghost to be viewed but warned about, as in zoo animals, seemed like a good way to set up this dance, this dancing around autobiography. On the one hand, what really happened or happens to the poet is irrelevant: who cares what my daddy did to my mommy when I was six? On the other, you need some kind of drama or tension in a poem, as in all forms of art, and if you can channel some personal trauma in a convincing way, it’s one kind of dynamo the poem can plug into. Also, I find the tension that results from the impossibility of completely resolving that traumatic past works well in the poem: you must go back to the past without getting caught up in it in order to resolve it. And you realize that this is impossible. But you must do it anyway.

In the book, the past covers a specific historical moment: the fold between and including the forward looking optimism of the U.S. right around the time of (and in the fifteen years following) World War II, and the inevitable skepticism of the 60s that followed it. Historically I was born in the latter era (1969), but my first impressions are of a country still caught in that fold. Rilke writes (in his Letters to a Young Poet) that poets spend the rest of their lives trying to crystallize their earliest memories—in part because they occur at the threshold of language acquisition and as such are hauntingly unclear or ill-defined; poetically this means such impressions usually contain elements of what Keats called Negative Capability—a kind of pleasurable uncertainty or mystery. So the speaker in many of these poems (of course “me,” to the extent that we are always constructed of a constellation of fictions) is haunted by a past which threatens to overwhelm him/her, yet which must be confronted for various unavoidable reasons.

I’ve been reading your book, and I see what seems to me a similar technique throughout it. In at least a few poems, the speaker ends up back in what seems to be his hometown: Scranton, PA—ghostly rustbelt of his past, made almost gothic twice, both by the passage of time in his own life, and by the economic political realities of the country. Yet in one of my favorite poems, “Scranton Considers Reviving the Coal Industry,” you have a speaker who is asked to perform a similar, similarly impossible, task: the aldermen of the town make him go back into the coal mines and take up the work that has been abandoned for all these years. The final couplet has the speaker saying, “You couldn’t pay me/ to go down there”; and then we get “and they don’t.” For me, this means the speaker has no choice in the matter. Payment implies a transaction—work for money—based on choice. Why would the speaker here feel forcibly compelled to revive Scranton’s coal industry, single handedly? The industry failed long ago, and the speaker won’t even be paid for the work. I’m reminded of that terrific song, by Bruce Springsteen, called “My Hometown.” It’s tempting to hear the lyrics as a sentimental, even jingoistic paean to the singer’s small American hometown (I love John Melloncamp, but this description is much closer to his “I Was Born in a Small Town.”). But if you listen carefully to Bruce’s song, you discover that the singer is full of self-recrimination. He feels painfully guilty for all the failures of his town. What an enormous responsibility he takes on—to blame himself for his hometown’s racial hate crimes, failing economy, social and physical decay. And yet, we are responsible for our towns, as much as we are for our histories and past. I guess an example closer to our craft, writing not song, would be Randall Jarrell’s prose work, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” I read this last summer, but it seems so tied to what many of the Confessional, mid-century poets were doing that I feel as if I’ve known it and been influenced by it for years.

GL: “Watching Late-Night Hitchcock,” presented in “24 frames,” takes up almost a third of the book. This poem offers said number of short to very short poems that alternately report on or address the speaker’s different family members and appropriate or imitate language from film. What was the genesis of this poem? And, given that “Watching Late-Night Hitchcock” was published as a chapbook and, thus, stands on its own as a collection, how does it interact with and speak to the other poems in Please Do Not Feed the Ghost?

PR: I guess most of us can admit that our poems begin so far back—as experience, memories, impressions—that there’s no way to accurately locate the starting point. But in terms of getting this poem down in words, I stared writing about my great-grandmother (on my mother’s side) when I was in college. She was a well-educated, tough and elegant New England matriarch born in the nineteenth century. She was frigid and authoritative, and I guess I’ve always thought of poetry as having similar qualities: true, clear and hard as ice, dazzling but cold. And also, somehow, essentially feminine. My favorite poems by Wallace Stevens are like that, illuminating, inhumanly cold, but necessary, fertile and supreme. And of course Dickinson’s work is full of these qualities. I stopped writing poems about my great-grandmother after college and focused my writing more on my father’s culture, side of the family, etc. This was while I was in the MFA during the mid 90s. But in 2001, I was half way through my PhD, and that summer, I was living in the house where I grew up, studying for my oral exams. I had to read something like 60 books—poetry, fiction, and philosophy. In terms of writing poetry, I work best when I’m reading a lot—“no input, no output,” as Joe Strummer used to say. So, I’d stay up all night reading Wallace Stevens, and Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, and Stein, and William Carlos Williams, and Walter Benjamin until my head was full of their voices. Then I’d just wander through the empty house at dawn, a house full of paintings of my mother’s mother and grandmother. At one point I really felt like Norman Bates, a fantasy I’ve had before, a kind of mamma’s boy, now an adult, roaming through the empty house he grew up in, with a head full of ghosts. It was terrific—that feeling of having voices in your head that you trust, that are bigger than you, older than you. So that was really how the Hitchcock poem began. I’ve never been able to duplicate the intensity of that experience. But looking back on my favorite poems of mine, they usually begin as someone else’s voice in my head.

It’s true the poem came out in a chapbook first, but I felt like most of the issues or qualities of the poem seem similar to, or in dialogue with, the other poems I collected for the full-length book: early- to mid-century Americana, family trauma, booze, sex. But it’s also very matriarchal—the feminine voice of authority. All the men in my book are childish drunks, and the women have to tell them what to do, take care of them.

GL: You’ve written cogently about the intersection of Deep Image poetry and translation of Spanish language poems, specifically Wright’s translations of Vallejo’s poems, in your scholarly work. It seems as though you sometimes come close to proffering so-called deep images in your poems, but in the “personal” and historical contexts of family narratives and confessional vignettes rather than in the snowfields of the Midwest, as we are wont to see from Wright and Bly. And, your work is also very conscious of the causality of generations—how family stories lead into and affect, and sometimes afflict, the now, which is how the cultural past translates into the personal present. Could you tell me a little bit about how Deep Image poetry, notions of translation, and your exploration of origins all come together in your work?

PR: That’s a great question I’ve never thought about, and I’m not sure how to answer it. Starting with Deep Image poetry, I don’t tend to go back to those poets very often, though I do read James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break every few seasons. That’s probably the most impressive book I’ve ever read. I’m guessing, from what I know of your own poetry and background, you probably had a similar experience with it. The first time I read “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” I walked around for a week in a daze. I don’t even like football, but I memorized the poem and just repeated it to myself all the time. How the hell did he write that?

In terms of translation, I must admit that my Spanish is fair to middling; as you note, I’ve written critically about translation, but I’ve never published my own poetic attempts at it. But I do think I translate other aspects of my father’s culture into my own work. Although my father never taught my brother and me Spanish, there were many different languages spoken in my house when we were growing up. My father knows French from living in Beirut, Lebanon during his teens, and so he and my mother spoke it when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. Plus, whenever we visited my father’s family in Venezuela, which was almost every Christmas, no one there spoke English, so my brother and I ended up speaking “Spanglish” with our cousins. And of course, when my father spoke to friends and relatives on the phone, which was almost every night, he would use French, Spanish, and Arabic—sometimes all three in one sentence. Though this was initially a source of shame whenever my friends were around to witness this crazy foreign language-soup, I eventually realized there were advantages to such an upbringing. For one thing, it’s a nurturing environment for someone who eventually wants to be a writer. This linguistic, cultural interface or confrontation tends to illuminate the extent to which language itself is a material, to be manipulated in new and often strange ways. The immigrant tongue, however diluted or marginalized in the new country, nonetheless bleeds through in ways that call attention to the very pliable nature of language itself. In my adolescence, for example, whenever my father wanted me to feel special guilt for my poor academic performance, he would say, “Your mother and I pay a lot of money for you to go to this school. But a lot!” In Spanish, the conjunction would make sense—a way of emphasizing the first part of the statement. In English, it sounds funny. Such syntactically strange sayings were a source of shame for us, growing up. And yet, they personalize my father; the older I get, the more endearing his awkward language constructions and translations seem.

The second quality produced by this kind of linguistic/cultural confrontation seems more related to the U.S.-born children of immigrants: a keen awareness of the dominant language and culture they have been born into and yet feel somehow partially (and, to them, shamefully) barred from. Julio Marzán describes this phenomenon as it applied to the poet William Carlos Williams, whose mother was Puerto Rican. According to Marzàn, Williams chose to be called “Bill” at a young age (and for the rest of his life) as a means of gaining acceptance from his surroundings—those outside of his childhood home, that is—and to avoid being considered “foreign” by the community; it was a kind of persona he took on, a way of being re-born as an Anglo American. In fact, considering that such large numbers of the U.S. population either come from immigrants or are themselves immigrants, Williams’s case seems perfectly common. And however ambivalent immigrants or their family members feel about the process of assimilating into U.S. culture—however much guilt, shame or resentment is involved—the fact remains: assimilation is such a common process, so widely shared by so many U.S. citizens throughout history, it has itself become part of our culture. It’s no wonder so many works of “American literature”—Goodbye, Columbus; The House on Mango Street; How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, to name just a few—have this very process as their central theme. At the level of language, however, the linguistic confrontations that make up the assimilation process engender in immigrants and their children new ways of articulating the American experience.

GL: You’re part of a generation of poets whose writing life has straddled the eras of print- and electronically-dominated poetry publications. The acknowledgments page in Please Do Not Feed the Ghost features credits from both print and digital journals. During the time that you’ve been writing, how has poetry changed because of technology? And do you favor or tremble before the nature of these changes in the current poetic-cultural landscape?

PR: Well, of course there are many advantages to the changes you speak of: poets have more venues in which to showcase their work; they can meet one another more easily on the web. I found your work online, and then I just found your email address and wrote you—all in the space of a few hours, which was great. That must happen all the time. And there are some terrific blogs and journals on the web now—H_NGM_N, elimae, yours, and others’. There are many advantages, but I guess accessibility is the greatest. On the other hand, and I know I’ll sound like a curmudgeon here, I don’t entirely trust all this Exciting, Revolutionary electronic communications technology. I started teaching (adjunct-ing) at the college level in 1994. At that time my students, like myself, were pretty new to the internet, to email, etc. And all these people, even folks in academia, were shouting, “students are writing letters again! Students are writing again!” And yet we have to admit that students now—who grew up writing emails—are not, for the most part, better writers than those of previous generations. I sometimes feel that all these new forms of communicating to one another encourage a kind of A.D.D. and grunt-speak—OMG! LOL!—and a real laziness toward engaging in long texts and critical thinking. You see it in poetry, too. All these poems that jump from fragmented “thought” to “thought” without any glue or cohesion, any sustained “argument” or narrative. You just can’t imagine “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” being written today, for what that’s worth. Or maybe I’d say that while this new technology doesn’t make students or poets worse writers, it can’t take the place of literacy, of reading and learning from all those poets who have contributed to the very tradition poets necessarily engage—consciously or not—when they write, or close reading skills, skills that take time and effort to acquire and master.

GL: So what’s new with Peter Ramos these days? Are you busy destroying the old Peter Ramos and starting afresh? Or are you merely perfecting the Peter Ramos of yesteryear? What are you doing, reading, thinking? What’s new?

PR: Hard as I try to destroy Peter Ramos, the old man always returns. Last summer I was at a writers’ colony, and I promised myself I’d cut myself, and my history, entirely out of all my new poems. I had this idea that I’d only write poems about motels. It was impossible. For me, I just can’t come up with a concept before I write: for the poem to work, it must always be from the inside out, not the other way around. So if or when the new Peter Ramos shows up, I won’t know what he looks like ahead of time. I like your idea that we should just try to perfect ourselves in our art and respect our obsessions. I think Allen Ginsberg once said, “The mind is shapely,” and I always understood him to mean by this that if you pay attention to your obsessions, even if they don’t seem immediately connected, you will see a pattern, a picture. For my job—teaching American literature—I have to publish articles of literary criticism as part of my tenure requirements. My bosses appreciate my poems, but I’ve had to direct my mind almost exclusively toward criticism for the past five years. Poetry and criticism share important qualities, as you know, but for me, I have to change my mind, attitudes, schedule, and lifestyle when I switch from one to the other. I’ve written poems, but not as many as I’d been used to in the last twenty or so years. Over winter “break”—I put that in quotes, because I still have to do research, write grants, apply for conferences, write papers, reviews, etc.—I’ve had a bit of time to read books for pleasure, so I finished both books by Oscar Zeta Acosta, the famous Chicano lawyer who was part of the “Brown Power” Chicano movement in California. He shows up in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as the Samoan lawyer and cohort of the speaker. Also, I’ve been reading lots of Latin American poetry from two terrific new anthologies—The Oxford Anthology of Latin American Poetry and one containing nothing but poetry from Cuba. I’m also writing about William Carlos Williams’s connection to Latin American poetry (his translations of it) and his own bi-cultural identity. I’ve also been enjoying Joy Katz’s new shorter collection, The Garden Room. Finally, I’d like to get together a panel with you, Nate Pritts and maybe someone else to discuss the decadent second half of the twentieth century—something that covers rocket ships, TV dinners, and Sputnik-shaped chandeliers, the glorious and brave New Frontier that so quickly rusted apart and fell into oblivion.