KR BlogWriting

A Conversation with Lily Brown about Wallace Stevens

Lily Brown’s excellent Rust or Go Missing was published by Cleveland State University and the thing’s just a stunner–I reviewed it for the Rumpus a bit back, but just go buy the book and read the thing–it contains some of the best poetry being written at present. A reader familiar with Stevens’ll be struck on reading Rust–there’s a Stevensian pull to her work, and so for the last month or so she and I’ve back-and-forthed over email about Stevens, what his magic is, how it may or may not be presently copied/utilized by younger poets, etc. For real though: buy her book.

WC: The biggest/easiest questions to start with are 1) how’d you first experience Stevens’ stuff (you mentioned a class: had you read him before? What poem was it that blew yr mind open?), and 2) how you find him generatively/artistically useful. Certainly he writes gorgeous stuff, and that’s great, but how’s his work helped you in your own work? I’ll certainly answer along the same lines, or take this in whatever direction you want, but I’m real curious to read young writers talking about the guy–he seems massively important at present.


LB: I think I first encountered Stevens in high school, though I don’t remember his work making much of an impression on me. My guess is that I read “Sunday Morning,” wasn’t inspired–I’m still not inspired by that poem–and moved on to other poets. At that point, I was sneaking around in the library at my school pulling Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath books off the shelves, so it could be that I just wasn’t ready for Stevens, as it were. Then about ten years later, when I was getting an M.F.A., I took a three-week intensive course on Stevens with Graham Foust, and it was in that class that his work “blew my mind open,” as you put it (or took the top of my head off, as Dickinson put it). At first, I remember feeling totally unable to enter into the work. I felt this way particularly on a day when we were reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but I think it was during that class discussion that something shifted. I started to see the sections of the poem more as gestures towards–for lack of a better word–meaning, and finding meaning in the way parts relate to each other (“inflections” and “innuendos,” or “a man and a woman,” for example). As I remember discussing in class, no specific bird called a blackbird exists. A blackbird isn’t a species of bird, in other words, but rather Stevens’ creation, used as if it were a species-name, like sparrow, or wren. What I’m trying to say is this: the figure of the blackbird is moving, to me, for the way its faux-specificity belies its metaphoric qualities as a vehicle for seeking meaning, for seeking to understand the relationship between things in the world, or for seeking knowledge in the everyday. The blackbird becomes, for the speaker, “involved / In what I know.” In this way, the word “blackbird” is actually perfect because it seems specific, but isn’t–a blackbird could be a crow, a raven, or any number of other birds. But the unspecific name matches the gesture-like sections, which move not hierarchically, but as if inhabiting the same plane, each one equally as important as the others, with the blackbird as a mediating presence.


In terms of how Stevens is “generatively/artistically useful” to me, I think there are a number of elements that are generative in his work. Some of the most important elements I see as artistically helpful are the following: an emphasis on between-ness, emotional restraint countered by moments of explosion, and the balance between tradition and experiment. I just named three categories that all involve a balance between two poles, and perhaps that’s the most important thing to me about Stevens. Poetry, for me, is pretty much always about making some combination, through expression or representation, of interior and exterior experience, of finding a balance between the two. So what I might find in Stevens is permission to work with that idea always in mind. His time-spanning obsessions, primarily the imagination and reality, make me feel like whatever I happen to be obsessed with is OK, and like I can keep trying to work out how best to make poems that come as close to the complicated human experience of negotiating interior and exterior as possible. And speaking of “human,” there’s an emotional restraint in Stevens’ poems that consistently moves me (this might be most evident for me in his overwhelming use of the impersonal pronoun “one” instead of the personal “I”). That restraint feels profoundly human, the tug between wanting to share one’s experience, and feeling exposed by that sharing. I love the moments when things bust open, too, as in the epigraph from Stevens in my book, from the poem “United Dames of America”: “There are not leaves enough to crown, / To cover, to crown, to cover–let it go–“” There’s this sense here that the poet becomes frustrated by the rut he gets into while writing, and that his frustration is imported directly into the poem as he admonishes himself to “let it go.” I love this moment of interruption or eruption, where the poem becomes less “poem-y” and more intimate because the poet’s thought process is inscribed into the poem.


Stevens is often called the “philosopher poet” or is considered highly intellectual, but I actually see his work as profoundly emotional, and the emotion in his work, paradoxically, often emerges through restraint, rather than overt exposure.


WC: All this stuff makes total, total sense to me. What’s raddest about Stevens is how thick and rich he is, how much he can offer to so many folks. I’m having a hard time arranging my thoughts on this, so if it’s jumbled, apologies from the top. Actually, I’m just gonna number+list things, for ease (at least my own).


1. Huge yes and emphatic love for the sense of gestural in Stevens. What it ends up feeling like, for me anyway (and I studied this stuff with Tom Gardner at VTech, who’s big into Stevens and Dickinson and Bishop and Frost and Graham, and so stuff I now see in Stevens I see [somewhat] because I studied/got into him along with getting into the rest of those folks simultaneously [it’s funny that we don’t know each other at all, because now I have to admit to my shame that I’d literally never read half those writers when I got to grad school…which sort of begs the question of how the hell I got there to begin with]), is that S’s got this way of sketching the boundaries or outlines of an idea, and, through the poem, trying to articulate different aspects/identifiers of the thing being considered, and then, somehow, at the end, of like electrifying the whole thing, making the thing come alive (and, really, not necessarily really even that: it seems mostly/much about making the reader’s mental agility and ability to connect stuff come alive: as you say, the blackbird’s generic, unspecific: what the poem ends up doing is making the reader come alive afresh, or that’d seem to me to be on of the big goals). There’s also–and you get to this in the second part–a real human-feeling humor or doubt or skepticism at work in S’s stuff as well, an acknowledgement that the movement and connection of stuff’s more critical (overall) than tiny issues of precision (I’m happy to be wrong about that–I’m putting it about as clunkily as possible). All of which, I’m seeing now’s, a long way of saying not too much, so how about just a question (and I apologize for however dorky this ends up sounding: the reason I’m asking you about this stuff is because I believe you’re a good young poet whose work is significant and worth reading and perhaps [I hope] even representative of some current moves/trends in contemporary poetry written by people in our rough demographic [I’m 32]): do you think S’s stuff’s become something of a touchstone for present writers, young-ish and otherwise, because of this gestural, imprecise aspect, and because of the way his stuff makes the mind come alive? Again: this clunks like a junk yard, so apologies, but if it makes sense, run with it.


2. THANKS+yes for calling the emotional aspect in Stevens stuff, and that it comes so clearly through restraint. “Idea/Order” was the one that unbuckled me hardest and first, and honestly just thinking the phrase “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,” (or even, worse–because it betrays just this awful, awful vulnerability, “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know…”) chokes me up a little bit–not for the phrase itself, or for the demand on the part of the speaker, but for what you’re calling the moment of explosion–that moment when, it seems, S gets out of the way and admits that the awfully pretty and well-made philosophical stuff in the poem only goes x far, and then there’s this explosion, this bursting through an emotional wall, which is where the poem gets meaningful charge. My question on this aspect is basically the same as what I tried to ask above: why do you think S’s work is compelling at present, to lots of us?


First, too, I should make clear: if you don’t think S’s stuff’s as wide-spread loved and appreciated and touched-on by other writers, please let me know–I’ve really no idea, I just feel like I see his name and work lots of places. But if you do see his stuff everywhere, and especially if you see/heard of lots of other young-ish writers (or otherwise) coming back to his stuff in the way a generation ago’s writers came back to _____ (whoever–I wouldn’t even know), I’d be curious about yr thoughts on why Stevens is someone we find so much sustenance in, all of us. I don’t know if I’ve got any real theory or thoughts on it, other than that 1) the guy wrote shit that just sings gloriously, still and over+over, and 2) his incredibly powerful, muscly skepticism seems in service of authentic, real experience of the world–the skepticism’s not a joke, nor is it hip or ironic or anything like that–dude seems for real to have emotional skin in the game, and it feels as such in his poems.


LB: There’s so much to say here, I’m not sure where to start. But perhaps I’ll start by saying that while I can’t really speak for poets our age (I’m 30), because I’m just one person, I can say why Stevens is particularly important to me, and perhaps my experience overlaps with other people’s experience. First, I do agree with you that there are lots of Stevens enthusiasts out there, though I have encountered the occasional skeptic. Your comment that Stevens’ work “makes the mind come alive” struck me, along with what you said just above: “his incredibly powerful, muscly skepticism seems in service of authentic, real experience of the world.” I think you answered your own question of why Stevens? with those comments. From my perspective, the world we live in doesn’t reward thinking hard about what goes on around us, about experience, about how to live authentically, to steal that word from you. When I say “the world we live in,” I mean the mass media, I guess, and particularly political rhetoric during highly charged moments, like presidential elections. Poems ask us to think hard (at least I hope they do–I think the best ones do), and Stevens’ poems are particularly think-y; they circle and question (your point about his skepticism comes in here) much of what we take for granted, i.e. reality. I feel like Stevens works constantly to undo the “rage for order”–something even more rage-full today–and his “ghostlier demarcations” (the “blackbird,” for example) embody what we’ve been reflecting on in this conversation about the “gestural” quality of his work. The inexact, the experiential, the sensory, the process-oriented–all of these things that our culture doesn’t privilege–move to the forefront in these poems.


Poets, I think, place a lot of value in getting outside of the models of thinking that we’re often presented with on a daily basis, which is to say models that privilege binary relationships–a kind of two-pronged, right-wrong model of being. This comes up in politics all the time because it’s a way to make things seem simpler than they are. But I think poems, and maybe Stevens’ poems particularly, open up our imaginations and make us think outside of those boxes. So perhaps there’s something about our particular moment in time that makes us want to slow down in the way that Stevens slows us down. Reading Stevens always makes me want to write; his poems put me in the space of daydreaming, of letting the mind work as it will, without the (often technological) distractions that generally keep me from writing poems. Stevens’ poems always, always leave me in a between space, and that space is like an antidote to the 24-hour news cycle (not to mention smart phones, social networking, etc.), as it were. Sometimes I just want to get lost in a poem, and in turn, in my head, and I wish I could thank Stevens for consistently letting me do this. Do other poets also let me do this? Yes, of course. But it’s that Stevensian mindscape we’ve been discussing–and the space in it for the reader, and I think you pointed that out as the opening of the “reader’s mental agility”–that feels both freeing and intellectually engaging to me.


And maybe one last note on this issue of emotional restraint and then explosion that we’ve been discussing. Can I say that I don’t think we see a lot of emotional restraint at this particular moment in time? There’s this constant exposure going on in the culture with whatever websites, reality TV, and social networking tools we all use (I feel like a broken record about this, but my ambivalence remains, even though I’m on all of these sites). Privacy seems compromised in many ways, and I think maybe the restraint in Stevens appeals to me because I like the idea of not revealing everything, of hinting at or exploring the edges of what isn’t quite revealed. We all love a good mystery, right? And I think the restraint is part of that mind-coming-alive situation.


WC: I love what you’re saying here, plus I’m 100% with you: reading Stevens always makes me want to write as well (I imagine there’s quite a few of us). What you’re getting into–what the space he creates actually *does*–seems to me to bring up questions of discipline (given that he worked forever in Insurance [meaning: his job literally was about examining and quantizing certain risks]; also given that he took colossal walks [his meter’s so addictive it’s hard to read without just stealing his style: after reading enough of his stuff I find myself only writing in tercets]). This may just be a silly and overobvious way to get further at what you’re saying above, about his work as something like a tonic for the constant exposure/abundance of signals at present. I don’t know about you, but there’s something about the man’s stridency that knocks me over–this measured, patient dedication, this unflappable belief that something worthy’ll come from the end result…does this make sense? I’m trying to get at the aspects which lead up to the emotional release or explosion we were at earlier: there seems something awesomely do-it-yourself about Stevens, almost. The parts are showing. The best of his stuff is like great wood or the inside of old watches: you can see the grain and pieces, everything’s clear, right in front of you. Does this (to me very quiet) dedication and patience ring for you? Again: this very well could be just a minor shift of what you talked about in your first response, and what we’ve talked about already, but that last bit of yours made me.


LB: I think I see what you’re talking about–it’s like a constellation that comprises process on the one hand (walking and writing, and the meter and rhythm of that walking), and perhaps the way that process seems exposed in the poems on the other hand, so that one sees “the parts,” as you put it. So we see the parts not only through the way we sense the writing process, but also in those moments of release and explosion, where the process breaks open or breaks out of the measured feeling of the poems. Am I getting what you’re saying? There’s also a sense of the meta-poetic in Stevens. Take “Man Carrying Thing”: “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully. Illustration: // A brune figure in winter evening resists / Identity. The thing he carries resists // The most necessitous sense.” This is a moment of the parts showing for me, although I think it’s also sneakier than that. The speaker makes a proposal of sorts, and follows it with this highly rhetorical move–“Illustration.” But of course, in Stevens, the promise of the rhetorical move doesn’t quite work out. The colon after “illustration” breaks its grammatical and rhetorical promise of explanation. In effect, the two statements, the first about the poem and the second about “the brune figure,” are semantically equal, rather than the second illustrating the first. The “illustration” does illustrate by way of accretion. But this accretion works paradoxically as the subject of each sentence–first the poem, then the figure, then the thing the figure carries–becomes increasingly ambiguous as the sentences progress. What is a “brune figure”? What is “the most necessitous sense”? Could he be referring to vision? It’s as if the parts show in a couple of ways, through this screwy off-promise of an “illustration,” but also through the syntactical repetition, which I think is a fossil of the writing process, of the way the mind gets into a rhythm while working.


The sentence structure becomes regular, and I wonder if this regularity relates to your idea about the “aspects which lead up to the emotional release.” Stevens’ prosody and syntax often work through the repetition of structural elements, and then at some point these remnants of the writing process break open in the moments of release in his poems. But sometimes it can happen in the reverse, as in “Bantams in Pine Woods”: “Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal. / Your world is you. I am my world.” In this particular stanza, the wildness comes first in the form of “Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat!” followed by the trio of reflective, syntactically similar sentences. I might be painting myself into a corner here, but in any case, I think there’s something in the addictive meter you refer to and how it alternates with the (still rhythmic) moments of release. Obviously we get pleasure and satisfaction out of the release, but I’m not sure if I’ve figured out why. Maybe it’s the contrast with the measuredness? It reminds me of a reserved person who suddenly says something completely out-of-character, and the pleasure of the inside coming out in that way. I’ve come full circle, back to my first answer–to paraphrase a poem by my friend Mike Sikkema, “It’s an inside/outside kind of thing.”