SM: I was looking again at your first chapbook this morning, Sleeping Woman
, which you gave me a copy of when we met at Cave Canem in 1997, the same year the chapbook appeared. Sprinkled between the poems are your drawings. What struck me, looking at this book nearly 20 years past, is the interplay between the image and the text, something I still see as essential to you as an artist. You've had your original art on the cover of each of your books. Your most recent book title, How to Be Drawn,
is like an arrow pointing in many directions at once, one of which is the idea of figure drawing (others I hear in the phrase: creation of a self, how to be a model, how to be taken in by something/someone, and an allusion to the history of lynchings in America). I've been wondering how your practice as a visual artist shapes your poems and vice versa. I'm thinking for instance of a recent time--late 2013 when we went to see a solo show of your paintings in a gallery just outside of Pittsburgh--that I realised again how much you're also a serious practitioner of visual art.
TH: Before turning to these questions, I was reading a biography on the painter Lucien Freud. I'm trying to work out a poem, a weird sort of double persona, double mask poem in the voice of the poet Ai as the painter. We'll see if it ever works out. In any case, I have been a fan of Freud's work for several decades now. In college I'd been a tad obsessed with the textures and intensities of Van Gogh and the naked super-realist figures of portrait painter Philip Pearlstein. Bodies have always interested me more than landscapes and objects as a maker and viewer of art. When I think back on it, it makes perfect sense that Freud would blow me away. He's drawn to texture as Van Gogh was (I think Lucien Freud said he wanted to make the paint equivalent to flesh) and he's drawn to figures, bodies, flesh as Pearlstein is (Pearlstein is 91 and open-eyed--meaning his work will have a belated rebirth once he passes). I think I am trying to measure the space between what I can see and what I can touch in poetry and painting. Maybe it's overly poetic to say such a thing. But in both, I wrestle this voyeurly feeling. I intend the sexual and secretive implications of the word "voyeur," and I think I also mean the act of making as a balance or brief antidote or way of wrestling with the loneliness of looking without touching... I'm not sure I've answered your question. I think I might just be full of words about Freud right now. I don't mind the influence if you don't.
What my answer to your question makes me ponder though is your own wrestling as a poet and writer. I think of your spectrum of energy: the way your work has always balanced passion--passionate love, passionate fury, passionate intelligence on the one hand with graceful form, graceful manner, graceful measure on the other--but don't be swayed by my thoughts. And well, additionally, I wonder what artists or writers have been guides for you over the long haul? I don't think we've ever talked about it though I think of music and literature. What is the link between your wrestling and your guides?
SM: I like being swayed by your thoughts on this and am taken with the idea of one's passions somehow being balanced by form. Or obstructed by it, I'd say, as when the form doesn't match the "passion" or live up to it. I'll circle back on Van Gogh, whose work and life I've been a tad bit obsessed by for a time as well. I'm not original in saying this but still--I see in his work a struggle to transmit and contain an intensity of feeling (madness, for instance, though there are other things at play) and that this perhaps demands the use of the highly textured and layered brushstroke we see as defining his 'style.' The opposite seems also true though: that the brushstroke demanded a kind of intensity from the maker/artist. I can't know this to be the case for Van Gogh in a verifiable way, of course. But the thought highlights for me how much weight I put in the importance of subject and form not only asking something of each other in a work of art but also that both subject matter and the technique/aesthetic to realise it should require something of the artist/creator as well. This has everything to do with what I feel when I am inside of writing a poem and this feeling, this tussling at times, is what differentiates a poem from a linguistic exercise for me. Another artistic influence: Frida Kahlo. Her obsession with retracing the autobiographical underpinnings of the self, as a narrative and lyric construct rendered in visual form, is one of the things I want to achieve in language.
I see in your poems something similar: a wanting to break free of form but also a desire to be bound by what form provides, which is a way of shaping our knowing. I could almost endlessly talk about your inventiveness/restlessness with form and give dozens of examples. How to Be Drawn
certainly offers me many new chances to be seduced by the containers the poems create, occupy, and break free of. But when I think of form (not just in your work but in poems in general), I find I'm as drawn to other shaping elements, like sound, music, voice, and story, as much as to spatial design or the way a given poem moves down/across the page. With your recent poems I keep coming back on the idea of family as one of the strands of story and voice I hear most audibly in the collection, and it's one I see as a return to earlier work, though of course it's different now. I'm thinking of an older poem like "The Same City," which is partly about your stepfather who raised you--and what happens when I compare that poem, written over a decade ago, with a poem like "Gentle Measures" or "How to Be Drawn to Trouble" (and vice versa). It doesn't seem to me the change is only in the form, understood as the way the poem moves or is shaped. It seems the difference is as much about voice and vantage point vis-a-vis an ongoing story you have been telling for a long time. I suppose I can't hold apart knowing you as a person from my reading of your poems, and that's not what we've been taught to do. 'The speaker is always a persona and should be treated as such' is a concept that on one level I believe is useful, even if overly simplistic. I'll just come out and say then that what I'm really moved by in your new book is the vulnerability of the poet-speaker, especially in approaching questions about family and abandonment. How far do you think we ever come from those people who made us? What does it mean to be a father (or mother) and to try to stay?
TH: I don't think we ever get very far from the people who made us. Which is really to say, in terms of craft, much of what we do is born out of experience. At least that's how I talk to my students about it. Experience is a terrific starting place for all art, but not necessarily an ending place. My ambition is to braid stories of experience with songs of imagination. This wasn't the case in an early poem like "The Same City" where my primary aim was to capture an experience and feeling, but elsewhere in that book, Hip Logic
, I began wanting to capture something other than personal experiences. The series of anagram poems were attempts to capture a particular slanted, intuitive knowledge/logic. In Wind in A Box
, with the series of persona poems (and self-titled persona poems), I tried mixing an imaginative speaker and personal perspective. A poem like "Arbor for Butch" in Lighthead
leans, like "The Same City," toward the experiential--and hence more vulnerable side--but it too is trying to balance that with the lyric imagination. And in the recent book maybe "Gentle Measures" is leaning in the direction of the imagination while using fragments of narrative experience...I'm talking about strategies though I hear you asking much more personal questions: maybe how does one--how do I reconcile the wish to run into imagination with the responsibility of standing in the world; how do we balance the real and the fantastic; reality and fantasy? I'm still trying to figure that one out. I mostly want to stand on one foot while the other hovers dreamward. A flamingo poetics or something. It's stance that allows me to both challenge and honor my obsessions with personal history, masculinity, culture, with levity versus gravity... it's a stance that allows me to draw from the real world without being confined by the real world.
I want to say Madwoman
is a book of obsessions, but "obsessions" feels too limited. A book of passions, a book of focus, a book of interiors? It's great to see you expand/explore the themes of your previous books: The roots and rootlessness connected to home ("Little soul--kind, wandering--body's host and guest..."); the masks and manifestations of womanhood. I'm thinking, for example, of a line in "Now I'm Mother": "My real name's Dispenser¬ of¬ Bandaids but call me Earth, if you would rather." My question is about your relationship to theme. I had a conversation with my grad students about theme recently. Is it useful for poets to think of themes in poetry? Your new refrains, images, forms add up to brilliant new strategies in the poems. Maybe theme is the sum of a poet's obsessions/passions. What is your relationship to words like theme, obsession, passion, focus? Or maybe a simpler question is how does your use of form (here as well as earlier books) relate to the content of the poems?
SM: I like the idea that "theme is the sum of a poet's obsessions/passions." I would have thought it presumptuous to note themes early on. Or maybe I was afraid that by identifying preoccupations with certain subjects I would lock myself into writing the same poem. Now I think it doesn't matter. Or I don't care. I don't have much interest in training my gaze as a poet on anything but whatever moments, memories, ideas, stories, etc. compel me to keep looking at them and turning them this way and that. I guess what I'm saying is that I trust what interests me (what I am obsessed by or passionate about). And I know that each time I step into the river, the river is not the same river, nor am I the same person who steps into it.
I think it's the case in your work, as it is for most writers really, that you've also circled back on certain themes or subjects over the books you've written. I'm thinking of another of your poems from early on, the opening poem from your first full-length collection Muscular Music,
"At Pegasus," which is very much about the body and desire and particularly about how black men interact with each other and how sexuality and intimacy become, at times, complicated and vexed. The body, desire, intimacy (or lack of it), these are just some of your obsessions I would say and I've seen them come up again and again, but each time I see one of these themes recur it is the same poem and then again it's not, since you are invariably pushing toward different edges and interiors. "At Pegasus," for example, brings in Orpheus, a figure I think haunts your work. Why? I could offer up many of conjectures (you love Rilke, for instance, and I know this from our conversations perhaps more than is clear in the poems) but the point I'm really making about Orpheus is that his recurrence might be called a leit motif
but is really I think about you trying to get at something more deeply each time you invite Orpheus into the poem or--just as likely I suspect--when he shows up uninvited and demands entrance.
You and I have both said to each other after finishing a book some version of: 'maybe I'm done as a poet now and I'll just stop writing poems.' I don't think we've said this to be coy or arch but because it felt true, as it should perhaps if you've exhausted a certain vision that the larger landscape of a book asks you to do. But then after a time (a day, a month, a year?), something begins to nag at you and you wonder if you've really 'gotten it' right or captured 'it' fully or at all even, or if any of this is possible. And so you begin again. Passion, theme, obsession--these might just reflect the stubbornness necessary to make art that's any good.
I'm going to turn a corner though and ask something else, maybe because I'm still thinking of Orpheus: what's your relationship to myth and myth-making?
TH: I've always been interested in contemporary myth and mythmaking. This isn't especially original: sports and cinema and most success stories are seasoned with myth. Myth has become a tool of commerce and commercials. I'm interested in that. The blood and vulnerability behind the bravado, behind the mask. To go back to something I said earlier, I want to hold both the myth and the real in balance. I want no so much to yank off the mask as look really close at it and ask why it's necessary. I want the mask and the face behind the mask to be true.
When I returned to your first book recently, I paused at the quote by Jean Rhys: "Only the magic and the dream are true. All the rest's a lie." I think your work has always carried this quote in its heart. It's maybe most evident in the magical/dreamlike personas across the books: Calypso, Persephone, mermaids, even Madwoman who returns from earlier books. Your poems always carry a sense of enchantment. Sometimes troubled enchantment, sometimes linguistic enchantment. In fact, in "jack mandoora mi nuh choose none" one of the first poems, in your first book says, "it is the same story enchantment answers the call of many names: rapunzel rumpelstiltskin..." How does this manifest itself in other ways in your poems? I think I have an idea that goes deeper than the use of persona, but tell me what comes to mind when you consider your body of work in general and Madwoman
SM: The mask--the way persona was framed by the Greeks and how Sigmund Freud picked up and ran with this--is the key for me. If a mask we adopt is a dramatic portrayal of the self, then some parts of the self are secreted away, even from our own understanding. While I have a desire to see myself as stable or singular (I like to joke that some "Shara" has to push the grocery cart around the store), I also want to recognize what pushes against that fixed narrative of ourselves we create since flux seems to me a closer version of how the self really exists. Speaking in the voice of Madwoman (and in the voices of others in this book that speak to her and often dispense advice she seems not to heed) gave me a way of enlarging the lyric "I" of the individual poems. The vocal register, the tonal range I was interested in exploring in these poems, is one I don't think I would have been able to access without the sense of actually being a dramatic speaker in many of the poems. As you mentioned, Madwoman showed up on my doorstep in much earlier poems, but I really didn't know who she was when I started to hear her voice again about five or six years ago. I wrote the poems to figure out who she was this time and what she had to say. I think it's worth mentioning that "mad" in Jamaican English, perhaps more than in American English, signals anger as much as it does mental instability. I've talked mainly about persona here and your question was much bigger than that. So I'll just say that 'enchantment' and 'magic' and 'dream' and other things you asked me about that also show up a lot in my poems do so because they are ways of dwelling in paradox. I'm drawn to the moments in life when a single idea of truth falls apart.
We could keep retracing what we've done as poets so far but I'm interested in hearing where you see yourself going after How to Be Drawn
. I have said in a couple different ways I see it as one of your most personal books in a while. Not personal in a myopic sense but in the 'unmasking' of some difficult truths about ourselves and our relationships to the others we love and who love us.
TH: Nietzsche once said truth was little more than "a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms." (I came across this in a Paul de Man essay I was reading for class the other day.) While I think truth is more dimensional than that (a moral dimension, a aesthetic dimension), I think it suits the kinds of mobile, figurative truths about the/my/any self in poetry. Which is why I guess I like writing about people. I think that's all I can ever really say about going forward: people--the selves inside and out--will be a large part of it. I'm drawn to the person in personal. But I have been thinking about other genres of writing. After a year delivering lectures, I have been thinking about prose. Are prose and poetry equal for you when it comes to expressing the self? (Maybe that Nietzsche quote is even less true when it comes to prose.) Are their ideas you have carried or might carry from your poems into prose?
SM: I'm eager to read those lectures once they're collected into book form. As to prose and me: I write essays that consider some of the same questions I do in poems and the genre seems as capable of 'expressing the self' as a poem, maybe more directly. One difference, which I love about and am at times stopped by with essay writing, is its ethical demand: you have to engage "truth" in a less slippery way than in a poem (or in Nietzsche's definition of truth in the quote you mention). On the other hand, the essay allows room to range. I like very much the ease, relative to when I'm writing a poem, with which I can be discursive and argumentative in the genre. I've been considering writing a collection of personal essays/memoir for some time now, as in the past twenty years as you know, so we'll see what happens next.
For now, I'll take us back to poems and particularly to a few lines from one of your recent poems, "Who Are the Tribes," that keep haunting me (the whole poem is stunning on every level of insight and form). I think these throw some of our conversation about the self, persona, myth, themes, etc. into relief:
What can you run from
that does not inevitably find you,
that you do not inevitably return to,
that does not inevitably run
TH: Well, we could really run on forever. We could talk more, for example, about the other places and genres the poems in Madwoman
have inspired. Which is to say, I really can't wait to see the essays you're considering. There are no poets or prose writers writing as you do. You're peerless. So those lines of mine about running make me think of the ways you run--not as a means of escape (as is maybe the case for me), but a means of endurance, tenacity, energy, and as I said before, grace.
SM: And you, as always, are full of grace and generosity. In your work and in your person. Always.
Terrance Hayes is the author of five books, including most recently, How To Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015). Information about him and his work can be found at terrancehayes.com.
Shara McCallum is the author of five books, including the forthcoming collection, Madwoman
(Alice James Books, US, 2017; Peepal Tree Press, UK, 2017).