"Boris, it was Boris I thought of then,
sipping a Gin Rickey on Spring Garden
Street in the Shade of Fairmont Park with a
blonde woman (not my mother) whose daughter
(granddaughter?) I was watching now under
colored flood lights, white seashells on the black
walls, whose breasts, eyeing each other like old
foes, shook out of synch like a putative
suicide in an antique novel or
postwar film. What is art? asked lithe Tolstoy
and the answer fluttered back: "What you suck.""
Excerpt from “THE TWO LERMONTOVS”, Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku
How do you blend the sense of humor with lyricism in your poetry?
I don't know. What can I tell you? I love to laugh. I like to make other people laugh. I like puns, non sequiturs, malapropisms, the absurd. I like pushing the envelope. I like poking holes in the envelope. I like ripping up the envelope and throwing it in the trashcan. Jokes are timing. Jokes are punchlines. So are poems. I like the windup, the delivery, the off-balance pitcher regaining his posture, the ball sailing across or curving into the strike zone. I like the knife-perfect dive. I'm mad for juxtaposition. Words against words. Lines against lines. This against that. The pretty against the ugly. The raw against the cooked. The cooperative in bed with the unruly. The pristine vs. the stained. The rumpled vs. the starched. I just try to write as precisely as I can. A lapidary sentence floats my boat. "Exuberance is beauty." "Energy is eternal delight." Blake is the touchstone, but you know who also is inspiring to read? John Bunyan.
I've read a fair bit of your poetry in the past few years. One thing I've always admired—the rhythm and sounds move together seamlessly and the momentum is always fitting with the theme. It often ends with a lot of punch. How do you get there?
The book that's helped me most as a poet is Barbara Herrnstein Smith's 1968 brilliant scholarly study Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. It won't teach you how to write poetry exactly, but it does unpack poems in quite an extraordinary way. It's one of those books like Colin Wilson's The Outsider or Norman O. Brown's Love's Body that is capable of rewiring your brain. It rewired my writing brain. I learned the ending must be the different brother. It's the ribbon that turns the purchase into a gift.
How do I get there? I write in the thrall of the ending. I write backwards. That is, I write from the bottom up. It's what Poe said in "The Philosophy of Composition": "It is only with the dénoument constantly in view that we can give the plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention." I take Poe's advice seriously: always know where you are going. (A draft has only the vaguest sense of the journey. A draft is a map looking for an X.) A poem is a postcard from your destination. The best destination is always a sock in the jaw. I try not to end up in the middle of a muddy field. I try like hell not to end in a nest of pillows.
Re: rhythm, sound, momentum.... Here are my teachers, the elements in my periodic table: Marlowe and Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Love Peacock. Arthur Schopenhauer and Franz Kafka. Isaac Babel and P.G. Wodehouse. Henry Miller and Edward Dahlberg. Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme. Jorge Luis Borges and Lydia Davis. I read these authors for their sentences. I relish how their sentences end.
Paper : Scissors : Rock :: Alliteration : Assonance : Rhyme
Paper and alliteration are cheap. Scissors cuts paper and assonance cuts alliteration. Rock and rhyme are dangerous, but what is dominant is not invincible: paper covers rock and alliteration can obliterate rhyme.
How did you arrive at the formal variety in The Lice of Christ? I love its contrarian coherence.
I like hybrid cars and I'm attracted to hybrid texts. As I've said, I'm avid for juxtaposition. Juxtaposition of style, tone, perspective, voice, story, form, type, kind, manner, method, approach, material, medium.... I'm interested in texture, heft, collage, collation, kaleidoscopy, the mixed bag. I'm attracted to works of mixed poetry and prose like William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," William Carlos Williams' Imaginations (collects five early works including the hybrid Spring and All), and Charles Bukowski's Septuagenarian Stew. I like works like Bleak House, Winesburg, Ohio, and Light in August that tell more than one story at the same time. I like the polyphony of voice in Don Quixote, A Tale of a Tub and Jacques the Fatalist, the multifarious talk you find in Bowell's Life of Johnson, the documentary interpolations of Max Havelaar by Multatuli , the incorporation of footnotes into fiction in Nabokov's Pale Fire, Sinyavsky's The Makepeace Experiment, and in David Foster Wallace. I don't like books, particularly poetry books, that do the same thing over and over. I like works like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Henry Miller's The Rosy Crucifixion, Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot, and Peter Handke's The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld that do different things over and over. Well, that's what I was trying to do in The Lice of Christ.
What about poets working today? Whose work inspires or resonates with you?"
When I think about inspiration, I think of the great writers of the past. That spigot has no shutoff valve. Contemporary inspiration more often appears as envy, doesn't it? I try not to go down that road. I admire those writers whose ambition is located not in themselves but in their work. Resonance? Individual poets don't usually resonate with me. Individual poems resonate with me, but that changes with my situation and mood. I've been excited by recent work by Bud Smith, Nick Demske, Darryl Price, Pamela Miller, and John Goode, but that's like plunging my hand into the bucket of good poets and plucking out five of the plumpest plums. There are hundreds of others (I hope you know who you are!) that I should, and wish I could, also name.
What are you working on these days?
More Cranshaw poems, a series perhaps. Three Cranshaw poems appear in Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku. Playing with form, seeing what happens when "found" poems are formalized: "found" clauses and "found" phrases fashioned into sestinas, villanelles, pantoums, etc. I also continue to work on mashups of text of public-domain poems and images from public-domain films—inspired by Italian fotomanzi and Mexican fotonovelas. I'd like to do something like Harvey Kurtzman did with his fumetti in HELP, but instead with lines of poetry inserted into characters' mouths.
Where my mind goes, I go. I trust in whim. I work poem to poem. I'm not the kind of poet who decides "railroad" and then writes poem after poem about trains. I trust my poems to figure out how to cohere. My poems are like "the story of the night told over" in A Midsummer Night's Dream which "grows to something of great constancy." I see books of poems like that—discrete poems "transfigured so together" so as to create something "strange and admirable." Theseus knows what's what, but Hippolyta's the better guide. Anyway, I have another book taking shape. It's almost done. As soon as it can walk on its own, I'll let it out the door.
Bill Yarrow is the author of Pointed Sentences, a full-length collection of poems from BlazeVOX and four chapbooks—The Lice of Christ from MadHat Press, Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku from Červená Barva Press, Fourteen from Naked Mannekin Press and Wrench from Erbacce Press. He has been published in many print and online journals including DIAGRAM, Contrary, PANK, Poetry International, and RHINO. He is a Professor of English at Joliet Junior College where he teaches creative writing, Shakespeare, and film.
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