The Interview with Rae Armantrout Page Two
by Suzanne Robinson and Anthony Watkins
AW: As someone who was introduced to you via the Modern and Contemporary American Poets class at the University of Pennsylvania, we give a lot of thought to your poem “The Way.” Do you mind answering a question about it? I know you are part of a movement that asks the reader to find their own meaning, but simply put, towards the end, there are several different thoughts. To my reading, the narrator is simply going on a bit of stream-of-consciousness triggered by the church visit. Others see these as multiple voices, other narrators, if you will, jumping in. Do you have an opinion on that?
RA: Many of my poems, including this one, involve a play of different voices and tones. I often use bits of found language, like the phrase “I am here” in the first stanza. The poem started when I attended a church concert and picked up the card from the pew in front of me. It said, “I am here,” presumably quoting Jesus. But, when you see it in writing, “I am here” like “You are here” is a really ambiguous, even bewildering statement. Where is “here” after all? And who is “I?” The first ten lines in the poem include some lyrics from the song “Grease,” and promo language for some early reality TV shows. I suppose these snippets are all (failed?) claims for presence and authenticity. Taken together, they might instead produce a feeling of lostness. The last eight lines could be read as personal statement about a lonely childhood. Or they might echo a fairy tale such as “Hansel and Gretel.” I’d say the poem is both comic and plaintive. What matters is that you hear the variations in tone, I think.
AW: I’ve been reading your new book, Wobble (2018.) It’s been forty years since your first book, Extremities. Your form varies a lot within this volume, but I wonder how much do you feel you have changed as a poet over four decades? Also, someone famously said you are the child of William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein, and while I wonder if you want to carry that mantle, I am curious as to which poets you read early that impacted you, and who are you still reading?
RA: I can’t imagine any remark made about me as “famous.” I appreciate Gertrude Stein, but I don’t see myself as her direct descendant. I did learn a lot from reading Williams — but I am generally uncomfortable with discussions of lineage. The poets whom I loved when I was young (and still love) are Dickinson, Williams, and (some of) Pound. Then came Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery. And I soon discovered George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker. Of course, I was also very much influenced by members of my own generation, people I came up with such as Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Nathaniel Mackey, Bob Perelman — the west coast language poets in general.
I was encouraged as a young woman by Dickinson’s boldness, her willingness to take on religion and philosophy, to talk back. I learned about line breaks from WCW, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. From Ron Silliman, I learned (and am still learning) the value of real, observed “detail,” of the particular. (Actually, this lesson comes from Williams, Oppen, and Niedecker, etc., as well, but Ron is someone with whom I am in regular communication.)
I don’t think my stylistic sensibility has changed all that much over the years. Fairly early on, I discovered that it was hard for me to write long, continuous poems, but that I could keep a poem going by adding separate sections divided by asterisks or numbers. I often rely on that technique still. It’s like I’m collaging or quilting separate moments. In a sense, my poems are always ending and starting over again somewhere slightly different. Another constant in my work is that I value what you might call permeability. Whatever’s happening around me enters into the poems. What’s happening changes over time, naturally, which gives the poems of different eras different material to work with. (I mean, when I was 30 I didn’t foresee the climate crisis.) It’s also possible that I now allow myself a bit more continuity than I did in the past. But I think the difference is fairly subtle.
BTS: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview!
SR: Do you “tinker” with poems after the first draft or do “they spring fully formed” from your head?
RA: I usually rewrite quite a bit. As I said, I start without knowing where I’m going or what I’m doing. As the poem becomes clearer to me, I often need to make changes. That said, there have been a few times when I’ve written something right out fully formed. That’s a great feeling and it’s happened with some of what I consider my best poems: “Grace” from my first book, Extremities, “Scumble” from Versed, and “Soft Money” from Money Shot.
SR: I’ve read a great deal about the Language poets. What does that phrase mean to you?
RA: Well, I don’t really like the moniker. We didn’t choose it for ourselves; it was applied to us. We were two groups of young friends in the Bay Area and New York who were trying to figure out how to write after or in the wake of the “New Americans” and in spite of the then dominance of what you might call the “post-confessionals.”
SR: Your poems are brief but powerful. Is that by design, or is it the way you think?
RA: I’m really not sure. I guess I am a fairly impatient person. And I have always been attracted to what you might call minimalist writing, from the classic Chinese and Japanese poets, to the Imagists, to, say, the fiction of Lydia Davis. I think there’s a power in compression.
SR: What is the best advice about writing you’ve ever received? What is the worst?
RA: I guess the worst is that I should eliminate ambiguities. I was pretty sure I wanted to work with them, not get rid of them. The best, hmm. I’ve had a lot of good advice. I took a class with Denise Levertov when I was an undergrad. She kept reminding me to think about how and why I was ending a line. Ron Silliman has suggested that I consider taking off the last stanza of a poem more than once. That’s not a panacea, of course, but it’s surprising how often it’s worth thinking about. I think the best advice is to respect and trust the words. I don’t know whether anyone ever said that to me.