Not Really Hiding: Graham Foust & Khadijah Queen

Graham Foust: I was recently irked by a New York Times review of Louise Glück’s Collected Poems 1962-2012.  The entire review was focused on her subject matter, really, praising her as ‘fearless,’ which to me just means she’s no fun to ride roller coasters with (and which hardly matters to me in the context of her poems). I’m being a little silly, of course, but I was really irritated. I thought, ‘Here’s a woman who’s spent fifty years (half a century!) thinking cheap jerseys about form, and the reviewer never once bothers to mention the formal properties of her poems.’ Since it seems we can’t rely on the ‘paper of record’ to discuss poetry as patterned language, I’m wondering how you discuss it amongst—–as you say at the beginning of Black Peculiar—–‘the various facets of the self.’

Khadijah Queen: I speculate that form may not be perceived to be as interesting to lay readers as content. Without having read the article, I agree that often words like ‘fearless’ or even ‘brilliant’ at times can become ubiquitous in the review process. The language of praise homogenized and packaged. But ignoring form in the work would be like ignoring the way a person’s body works in living. It behooves you to know more in order to gain optimal understanding/performance.

I wonder what you think about the limits of language. In Necessary Stranger I saw it used as a connecting cultural thread, even as it depicts a sort of alienation, and a strangeness infused by the kinds of associations made—–in ‘Panama’ for instance:

Pain is okay—–
It’s the practical
that murders.
Birdsongs now

in the trash-
thicketed blackout.
I want something to not
do with my hands.

I see a wasteland, a human in a wasteland, a human wasteland—–all that in those lines, and the various facets of the self I discuss relate directly to Whitman’s discussion of largesse and multitudes, the internalized sociocultural dialogue one engages in the process of navigating the wasteland, so to speak, alongside the expansive indefinableness of being human. I feel like I might be making a large leap here, but essential to self-knowledge is a dialogue with the imposing externalities we endure, even or especially when/because essential parts of our experiences and selves go largely ignored.

GF:  Thinking about the limits of language is rather tricky, given that one has to think about those limits in language. But I think what you see in the poem is certainly there—–and you’re right that the book does chronicle a kind of relationship with parts of the self that can be difficult to access (though perhaps sometimes easy to see, or even vice versa). In order for the stranger to be necessary, he or she would have to be known in some way, but this would also negate his or her being a stranger. And yet…

Critics often like to discuss certain poets’ tendencies to speak to the limits of language. Wittgenstein’s ‘the limits of my language are the limit of my world’ gets trotted out a lot. I’ve always thought that all poems—–or all good ones, anyway—–kind of leap over the limits of prosaic language and create new spaces, while also having a foothold in the larger traditions (and the possibilities offered to them by those traditions) from which they come. One interesting idea about the limits of language comes from the poet Allen Grossman, who posits language’s abundance as a kind of limitation: ‘Poetry can never take its medium as its whole subject. Language always means something else.’

KQ: I love that, and especially because it reminds me of Helene Cixous as well as Gwendolyn Brooks:

Breaches of tradition, though, are also a tradition. In the same way we escape regulation, we fall into a different kind of line, but a line all the same.

When I wrote Conduit I was in an entirely different emotional space than when I wrote Black Peculiar, but for both I allowed myself to receive a mode of unfamiliarity in content and form. I let it be without judging it or allowing others’ judgment, positive or otherwise. I don’t mean to say that I was passive in writing the books, to the contrary; but my activeness lay more in the listening for arrangement and truth, and in the feelings engendered by the languages and juxtapositions of emotion and intellect.

I am writing a different essay about my process and talking about the body as a root for that, and went back to what Claudia Rankine said in her introduction of Conduit: ‘There exists for Queen an ‘uncharted resilience’ of the body.’ In that way the body can be a mirror or parallel for other types of resilience—–of spirit, of memory, and to your point, of language, as in the evolutionary qualities of both at macro and micro levels, the multiplicity of meaning and perception. ‘Limit of my world’ means something rather circumspect if that world itself is limited only by imagination, as modes of interpretation are vast in the kinds of poems you describe.

In Black Peculiar, I used observation to a great degree, at least equal to the amount of self-analysis. I tried to encompass as much of what I saw and the automatic filter for me is the body. Maybe the body is the limit. But the body shifts, too, depending on what you do with it, what you feed it, how you treat it, who you share it with, even, and giving birth is a whole other existential realm. Now I am thinking about the stranger’s body, and what is familiar about it is that it is also a body, but its unknown-ness can be just as daunting or scary or intriguing as any element of life. Language to me is just as limitless and unpredictable in that way, in interest and in possibility, even when you constrain it to a form.

GF:  It’s interesting to me that your intense observation led to such fervent invention. It seems to me that your acts of observation refuse to just let whatever’s been observed ‘just be,’ which is the tack that so much observational poetry tends to take. The speakers in Black Peculiar tend to touch what they see—–lots of rubbing and scrubbing in these poems. In the book’s first section, the speaker seems to be writing letters to inanimate objects or conditions, while in the third, the verse play, inanimate objects or conditions are given these almost telegraphic or aphoristic voices. In a way, it’s as if you’ve done quick sketches or impressions of these different entities. And ‘impression’ is such a physical word, isn’t it? One thinks of a making a mould: ‘I planted the wax. Let’s find out what’s inside.’

Of course, an impression necessitates some differences between the person performing it and the person who is being impersonated—–that is, if your impression of Richard Nixon or whomever is exact, then you’re not impersonating him, you’re mistaken for him. Perhaps this has something to do with what you say about the breaking of tradition being a tradition in itself—–one wants to be both tied to a tradition (a community) and recognizable as some kind of independent entity (a mind/body that produces a body of its own work). The difficult thing is that who or what one is can be (or at least feel) less accessible when one sits down to write—–you have to figure out who you are on paper—–whereas the tradition is often ready to hand, enticing you or repelling you, confusing you or refusing you, etc. Maybe one doesn’t so much choose to break with it, but instead just chooses what to do in the gap that’s already there.

What you say about passiveness and activeness reminds of something the artist Mark Bradford says in an interview: ‘I work within a series of rules that put pressure on my psyche to find ways around the model and engage my desire.’ I feel like this describes the way I work too, which is to say that I tend to think of constraints (rules, models) as ways to ‘engage my desire’ and not as potential containers in which to force some already-shaped notion of what I want to show or tell or say.

KQ: Mark Bradford is one of my favourite artists, partly because he takes elements of detritus and urbanity and transforms them into simultaneously more than what they are and the essence of what they are. In a sense, what you say about how impressions represent how someone sees something or someone else. There’s both repetition and erasure in his work. As I wrote Black Peculiar, I studied and considered ways of seeing and, even more so, the feeling of being seen while also not being seen—–in particular, the simultaneous hyper-visibility and invisibility of blackness. However, that can be extrapolated as well to the generalization, categorization and segmentation of the populace, as consumers, as athletes, class divisions, et cetera.

Questions foremost in my mind: how does one control one’s impression on others? Does that control reflect an internal control or even self-knowledge? What are the ways we construct or falsify the impressions we wish to project, and what ways do others falsify us? American culture is notoriously surface; that’s not new news. But the mechanics of it and the toll it exacts still beg examination, a cataloguing of the weighty cost on our collective psyche. I think with the verse play, ‘Nonsequitur (a disjointed chorus in three acts),’ I wanted to capture as much of that toll amid the implied multiplicity, how all these seemingly disparate voices/containers for voice seem to express a similar dissatisfaction but don’t make the explicit connection that they have that feeling in common. Hence the rather difficult time one might have in manifesting it into performance, mirroring the difficulty of living through such disparity.

GF: Whitman’s poems certainly imply multiplicity: he famously claims that he ‘contain[s] multitudes,’ and one could of course point to a hundred other suggestions of this notion in Leaves of Grass. For Grossman—–and this is by way of D.H. Lawrence—–the ‘toll’ (to use your word) is that Whitman ends up presenting us with a hyper-general speaker. That is, his speaker is ‘so general, in terms of his address and reception, that there [is] no possibility of encounter.’ An encounter is, by definition, a face-to-face meeting of adversaries or a surprise engagement, a thing or a being one comes upon by chance. Emily Dickinson only ever uses the word ‘encounter’ as a verb, as in her poem 670, some of which is here:

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase—–
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter—-
In lonesome Place—–

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—–
Should startle most—–
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body — borrows a Revolver—–
He bolts the Door—–
O’erlooking a superior spectre—–
Or More—–

I came up with the title for Necessary Stranger after reading this poem, and I remember being intrigued by her notion of the subversion of what seems to be a kind of human business as usual. That is, the idea that one is mostly always foreign to oneself, and yet there are times when one glimpses oneself, or peels back the self to reveal some other absolute self, some interior that is somehow more definite or powerful despite its being mostly non-visible. But she then leaps right back to ‘The Body’, which seems to take pains to defend itself against this ‘superior spectre’ by playing both offense (‘borrow[ing] a Revolver’) and defense (‘bolt[ing] the Door’) in attempt to maybe return to the safety of surface. (I keep thinking of the word ‘peculiar’ now, too, which unlike ‘stranger’ signifies private property—–one’s body is one’s private property, ‘peculiar’ to oneself, though of course American history has not always been true to that word.)

I think what I love about Bradford is the same thing I love about John Ashbery: an absolute insistence on surface—–‘the surface,’ writes Ashbery in ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,’ ‘is what’s there’—–an insistence that eventually cracks the surface, gets inside (or at least looks inside) whatever’s been covered.  (I can’t help but hearing ‘surface’ as a verb too, as in something underwater coming up for air.) Dickinson mentions a ‘lonesome Place’; Grossman/Lawrence seem to long for an ‘encounter’ that they can’t get from Whitman; you speak to a kind of shared but unspoken dissatisfaction; and, for me, Bradford and Ashbery, in spite and/or because of their extreme playfulness, always bring with them an almost painfully alienated tone. Yesterday’s events [April 15th, 2013], the Boston marathon bombings, generated the usual discourse about finding ‘solace’ in art and poetry, but it would seem that some art might somehow provide us with the usual definition of ‘solace’ by way of that word’s less common definitions: a substance used for dressing cloth (a surface) and the penalty for the breaking of a law or custom (a wound).

KQ: There is a line of Shane McCrae’s from Mule: ‘no country loves the body’—–an entire universe of history and meaning in five words. And going back to the discussion of fearlessness you started this conversation with, when one has to live in a body in a place where it is not loved, a certain fearlessness has to exist for the sake of going beyond survival to enjoying life and achieving self-love. Somehow I doubt that is the fearlessness the author of the NY Times article meant, but I would argue it’s closer to what Glück meant. These lines from ‘Dedication to Hunger’, which was cited in the article:

That is the premise
of renunciation: the child, the model of
restraint
having no self to speak of,
comes to life in denial—–

I stood apart in that achievement,
in that power to expose
the underlying body, like a god
for whose deed
there is no parallel in the natural world.

A country could be called unnatural, as in a human formation and not a naturally created entity, and in enforcing a restraint, that word dangling on its own line on the etheric page, not love, the fearlessness it takes to love a self and a stranger, blurring the line between foreign and familiar, as you discuss. It took me a while to be able to articulate this, because I knew people who were victims of the USS Cole bombing in 2000, because I lost a brother to gun violence, because I grew up in the war zone that was South Central Los Angeles during the 1980s, to think about the Boston situation. So much of history infuses the present, and so much of that history has invested within it—–at bloody cost—–the distinctions between bodies, between gods, between countries, between our very selves. It pains me to think of it. It pains me to think that poets and artists have always had ‘that power to expose / the underlying body’ and still ‘the child, the model of / restraint / having no self to speak of’—–the ‘cracked surface’ is a ‘lonesome Place’ because not enough true collective seeing occurs. Restraint ‘comes to life in denial’—–the opposite of Whitman, with his unrestrained lines, and the opposite of nature, with its incredible abundance. At the risk of sounding new age-y, there is nothing that is not abundant about the sea, or the sky, or a swarm of bees, or the striations in the skin that loosen over time, that deepen to wrinkle. Restraint as a foreign thing holds more weight to me than another person as a foreign thing. Restraint is a concept, a practice; a person is flesh and bone, the same as I am, whether viewed in the convex mirror or not. Restraint might demand I refrain from personal revelations and keep the conversation trained on a so-called wider context, which seems a mythology to me because we are all part of a wider context. Restraint might demand I hold back the naïve exuberance I tend to offer up when discussing passionate and supposedly lofty topics like poetry and human existence. But I am reminded of lines from Akilah Oliver’s poem ‘In Aporia’:

I too have admired people of this planet.
Their frilly, ordered intellects.
The use they’ve made of cardamom,
radiation as well. How they’ve pasteurised milk, loaned surnames to stars,
captured tribes, diseases, streets and ideas too.

What we hide from each other, we hide from ourselves. Yet it’s not really hiding. It’s destroying what connects us.