What might you want to add to a poem decades after first publishing it? What might you make of your own consolidated Selected Poems even as you keep exploring new aesthetic possibilities? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Michael Burkard. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Burkard’s Nightboat books Envelope of Night: Selected and Uncollected Poems 1966–1990 and Lucky Coat Anywhere. Burkard is the author of more than 10 collections of poetry. He has received a Whiting Award and the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and multiple fellowships from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. He teaches at Syracuse University.
ANDY FITCH: Envelope of Night’s introduction states that you often don’t identify with your early work, yet you see in it necessary signposts along the way. Within that context, could we discuss the coming together of this collection? Did Kazim Ali approach you about the project? Did you take the initiative? Did you feel any reluctance? Or did your own identification or lack of identification with these poems never seem especially important anyway?
MICHAEL BURKARD: I remember it well. I was giving a grad student a ride somewhere, in the early summer. My phone rang, and Kazim asked if I would be interested in doing a selected poems. I was excited at the prospect. Sarabande Books always had been interested in doing a selected, but for some reason I hadn’t done a book with them since 2001. Also, for some reason, a selected poems hadn’t interested me earlier. With a few exceptions (Robert Creeley’s, for example), selected poems didn’t appeal to me as a reader. But for some reason, when Kazim called that did really interest me.
But when I started going through the older work (as early as 1970, 1969), I felt this tremendous self-consciousness about what to choose. A dear writer friend of mine offered to help, and it was a nice surprise to see what he selected.
And when I mention “signposts”: that early work required a comfort with non-referentiality and non-sequiturs, but also with a kind of extreme lyricism or sense of sound patterns. I’d consider those sound patterns some of my signposts — because I sense every young writer has certain strengths, and one strength I think I had was a very good ear. But of course your strengths also can create problems for you. So I now often suggest to myself and to students to put your strength on the back burner sometimes, and just leave it on low, since it will probably turn up anyway. Lyricism still interests me a great deal, and I love lyrical work, but that wasn’t a signpost in the same way.
Also that letter from Tomas Tranströmer, quoted in Envelope of Night’s introduction, has remained incredibly valuable to me. This had something to do with getting sober, because I felt his letter was onto something, but even when I re-read it after a year, something still wouldn’t quite register. Tomas had described my poems as like the Sphinx, which he once had approached from behind, wanting to see its face. And I had often left some notion of a self out of these early poems. I’d transfer that desire to see the self into some other vehicle or means for approaching a poem.
But right around then sobriety had started coaxing me to simply try to write where I was in the present moment. That got me interested in giving up on revising, not out of some sense of arrogance, but something more like: “I’ve been revising for almost 20 years. What if now I don’t revise, for an equal period of time?” Of course if I’d sensed myself not getting good results, I would have reverted to rewriting. But I felt something very interesting happening within me. My sense of judgement was relaxing. I just started going about the work in a different way. Certain poems would feel well written by the 10th draft, but also like they had lost their pulse — more like good-looking mannequins. Or I’d return to published pieces, to their very first drafts, and find an unexpected excitement. The revised poems had been well received by magazines, but Tranströmer was onto something.
And from the perspective of a poet whose well-regarded books sometimes had started going out of print, what can you say to other writers approaching that same fate — as their publishers fold over time, for instance? Had you anticipated or hoped that someone might gather together your early work? Had you never conceived of it? Did you just recognize one day that suddenly certain titles weren’t circulating anymore? Where would you be, in relation to these early books, had that call from Kazim never come?
Good question. For some reason though, the fact of something going out of print didn’t bother me much. I was dismayed for sure, if I can recollect precisely. I’d rather have the books stay in print, but when Ruby for Grief and Fictions from the Self and My Secret Boat got re-majored, the press ended up offering me hundreds of copies at like 20 cents apiece. To this day, I still have re-issued hard-bound copies of Ruby for Grief and Fictions from the Self. I don’t even try to sell them. I give them away.
In a sense, something similar happened with Sarabande after they did Entire Dilemma and Unsleeping. I assumed they would want to see another manuscript, but it just went adrift. When I look back on all of that, with a little regret, I think it again ties in with getting sober. I probably acted against myself when something was going well, and kind of unknowingly, slightly unconsciously, pulled away. But the fact of going out of print I guess was something I just quietly assumed happened to many books.
Then to return to Tranströmer’s response, to foregrounding the poem’s face, does that take place exclusively within the individual lyric for you? What importance do you put on placing individual poems within a longer sequence, or a book-length collection with its epigraphs (with Duncan, Whitman, Williams here standing out — but not otherwise being obvious reference points for you) and its overall design (with Marion Wilson drawings as one unifying motif)? I also sense your curatorial touch coming through how a poem gets titled, with even a title like “Untitled” carefully framing a poem. Or a selected poems often offers an elaborate set of notes at the back, referring to literary allusions and autobiographical details. You don’t provide that here. So anyhow, in what ways did Envelope of Night become a distinct book project for you, and does the face of your work sometimes surface at the book level?
That happens for me more with individual poems. To jump ahead for a second, for Lucky Coat Anywhere I wondered if it would feel inescapable that these poems didn’t have a strong relationship to each other, even if I arbitrarily ordered them alphabetically according to title. That became interesting to me. I think one of John Ashbery’s books did that, but even before then I’d been interested. I never felt particularly good at divvying up a book’s arrangements. Sarabande had a big hand in editing a couple books. I liked Sarabande’s sensibility, and I really just turned over the arrangement to them, and was really happy with what they did.
If Kazim had suggested something different for Lucky Coat Anywhere, I’m sure I would have been open to it. But the face of a poem always has felt pretty intuitive to me. When I stopped revising, I’d switch frequently from one poem to another. I’d intentionally put poems away and become a stranger to them, for a month or longer. I’d sometimes get excited then coming back across something I’d written. I would recall how on that given day I had thought I was just writing with really nothing on my mind. I maybe didn’t think the poem was working. But paradoxically, later, I would get an excited feeling, as if I was reading something interesting — almost as if written by somebody else. That still happens. Sometimes after I’ve looked at a poem maybe twice a year, for decades, I suddenly can see it in a different light.
Sometimes the titles come quickly. When they don’t, I usually look into the poem for a phrasing or a line that seems appropriate. Or I’ll simply type something up. As soon as I see it in typeface, I’ll either think: Oh, that’s not a good title, or This is it. Other times the title comes even before I write the poem.
You make a good point about how the epigraphs might trigger certain poems, though then the poem might go off in a different direction, though then the epigraphs might still help to shape the composition of the overall book. Often I would just find certain lines by quite different writers. I thought these lines deserved some homage or tribute. And I always got a kick out of artists, especially for drawings, having “Untitled,” but then in parenthesis there would be a title. The whole physicality of poems on a page has always interested me, and I’ve often thought it’s more than sufficient to simply keep it untitled or to imitate what an artist might do.
I had a long period of time (which I’ve missed over the past few years) when the poems would really feel like gifts. I might have an initial idea, or a phrase would come to me, and by the time I could write or type that out the second line already would have formed. It really felt like something writing through me. After a period of time, I’d sensed that I wasn’t very good at having a clear intention and knowing where I wanted to go. When I would try to write that way, I’d oversteer or overcontrol the poems, and take away most of the surprise. I did of course often write more deliberately, because that sense of gift certainly didn’t happen day-in day-out. But sometimes it would happen, and maybe would be unrecognizable at the time, and then later I would read something and feel very drawn to what was taking place.
One poem, “Time When the Day Ended,” literally, and as the poem states, came from a lost person’s “wanted” poster that my writer friend Diane Wald had sent me. I looked at it every day, which got me ruminating about who is this person, this young lost man? Once in a while I would try something very literal like that, and think: What if I tried writing in this direction? How might that go? This would feel a little more concrete than a revery or even than a simple thought-pattern.
I was still rejecting self-consciousness as a condition to write under. But one day I said to myself that self-consciousness is neither good nor bad, so why reject it? Why don’t I go with that also? And that became important to me. I often tell students: “It’s not like we’re always organically in the moment.” So instead I’d try to ask “Do I want to come at this poem from some particular direction”?
Way back in the late 1960s, Caterpillar Magazine did a special issue on Jack Spicer. I never forgot him describing how, during the Vietnam War, you might sit down and want to write a poem protesting that war, but you’d get this odd feeling that the poem wants to talk about ice skating in Vermont. He described this as a curiosity perhaps worth pursuing. And when I stepped away from rewriting, Spicer’s point gave me an example of trying to feel out where the writing wants to move, or where I get in the way of that movement. Of course sometimes you probably should work with contradiction. That too can become a viable possibility. Or manipulating the poem might also work, but I’d at least want to be upfront with myself and say: “Okay, I’m manipulating, because I want to see if manipulation works here.” In my earlier writing, I’d sometimes try to hide myself, but I’d also deny manipulating the poems. I’d pretend: Oh no, I’m not. That created difficulties in certain writing decisions, and in figuring out where to introduce these manipulations. I wouldn’t let myself just see what happened.
Exquisite ephemeral flourishes will arrive suddenly in these early poems. “Dear Z,” for example, closes on this ambient glimpse, rather than on some heavy metaphor: “I see the shadow of my hair reflected across from me on a yellow raincoat. The frame of the window and the leaves flapping.” But your introduction cites this specific poem as one for which you now might wish to add a bit more closure. “How Small” similarly closes on: “Sunday and rain falling. Quiet rain. No light on inside. Quasi darkness.” Could you talk about how you came to this half-dreamy, half-x-ray-esque mode of description, and how you now relate to it?
“Dear Z” literally was based on…I was staying with my partner at the time, Susan Lyman, an artist, in Holland Michigan. Susan was taking a paper-making workshop. We had a cabin in the woods. There were dunes, etcetera, and I remember the New York Times Sunday Book Review had a photograph of Boris Pasternak on its cover. I decided to address this poem to Pasternak, but I didn’t want to make it too direct, so because of Doctor Zhivago I decided to address him “Dear Z,” and have an intimate conversation, and simply start with the landscape and this setting in the woods. The poem closes down on those descriptive lines about the leaves and a yellow raincoat on a chair, gently flapping in the wind, and then I had written: “I don’t know how lucky I am.” But a couple days after writing the poem I eliminated that last part, thinking it sounded…what would be the word — cheesy? I also wanted to close with the image. Only two decades later, years after I got sober, did I realize that not only could that last line have possibly worked in the poem, but how utterly true it felt of my own life. At the time of writing especially, I had no idea how lucky I was.
A number of the Ruby for Grief poems began to speak a little more directly, even at the risk of speaking flatly. I got intrigued with certain shifts in perspective. They’d surprise me, but I wasn’t trying to manage the poems with a cleverness. I hoped for readers to find something smoothly transitional, even in the semi-sequiturs, or that dream-like feeling you described.
For Ruby for Grief’s title poem, I was writing one night at the dining-room table, halfway through the poem, and felt stuck, but felt that I had more to write. I had on the table a Norton Anthology of short fiction, sort of like a textbook, and for some reason decided to flip through it. I immediately noticed that at the end of stories this textbook would ask the reader certain questions. Suddenly I thought: Why don’t I adapt these questions as a format to get back into my poem? So I continued writing lines, but started raising questions: “Is Ruby’s awkwardness, when confronted by the stranger…” I remember distinctly reading the poem when I woke up (because, like anyone I think, and in those days in particular, I wanted a sense right away of whether this is any good or not), and I looked at it, and really thought it was rubbish, and put it in a folder, and then about six months later I reread it for the first time, and got really curious about it. I showed it to my partner Susan, and she looked at me and asked “When did you write this?” I told her about that night a few months before.
I later did a reading in New York City including the poem, and a gentleman came up after the reading and said he really enjoyed “Ruby for Grief,” and that I had put so much into it. I then did something typical for myself. I thought: Gee, he’s only mentioning one poem, and I read 15 poems. But my dear friend John Skoyles said to me, after we left the venue: “That gentleman who mentioned ‘Ruby for Grief,’ I think he’s onto something.” John told me: “Michael, when you put more into a poem, it’s usually very, very interesting — as opposed to just leaving out.” Through John’s voice, I heard that point more distinctly. Again, I was a year away from getting sober.
When I got sober putting things in started to interest me more. John Ashbery’s remarkable book Three Poems opens in part by saying “the thought came to me that to leave all out, would be another, and truer, way.” Then I think it continues :”clean-washed sea”…
Then: “The flowers were.”
But that Three Poems opening also says: “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way.” And it intrigued me that this roughly hundred-page book of three prose poems develops this idea of putting something in, which I hadn’t tried much before. That might mean being more reflective, even just on myself, or giving a kind of personal statement, or even a reporter-like kind of statement — maybe for an uneven event, or with emotionally uneven reporting.
When you mention figuring out ways to bring more into a poem, repetition and anaphora definitely come to mind, both for Envelope of Night and for Lucky Coat Anywhere. Humor comes to mind as well. I mean, if people only hear the Ruby for Grief title, they may not get a fully accurate sense of this book, where repetition will offer this quirky calmly insistent investigation. “The Dogs on the Cliffs,” for example, ends by parsing and reparsing “history” and “hysteria” in interesting ways: “history repeating itself, if history repeats itself it is still the same history, more repetition, no history, because it’s the same history, the same hysteria, which could include even me again.” I also think of more overtly humorous (to me at least) passages. “Study for Orange and Black” constantly redeploys certain terms, including “stag,” which seems somehow inherently funny, and then “fieldglass,” which feels less inherently funny. Together though they work really well to create this humorous element. And when repetition and humor come together, I think of Freud’s account of jokes, of how humor starts off by stimulating us, maybe giving us too much, building up tension within us, and then laughter provides us relief, or relaxation from that tension.
These poems do have a great deal of humor. And comedy and humor really interest me in other people’s work. Your tie to repetition is interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ve been a closet songwriter since I was 11. I had a good voice, but nobody knew I did this. I’m always coming up with melodies, and writing songs. In my thirties, once sober, I finally told somebody, a friend of mine, about it. Not even partners along the way knew I did this. My friend said: “Why don’t you get a handheld tape recorder? That way you’ll have a record of what you’re doing.” I’ve been doing it ever since 1984, in terms of transcribing melodies and coming up with lyrics.
I don’t hate to admit this now, but I remember, in grad school one day, talking with Donald Justice and Marvin Bell at lunch. Both were extremely well-versed in classical music and jazz, and I just sat there, realizing how music had influenced me. I wanted to talk about it, but felt my sources weren’t good enough. I could have talked about rock & roll, blues, but I didn’t even bring it up. But I was introduced to blues and jazz through a friend down the street, whose parents always played different things I hadn’t heard of and would become enamored of. That repetitive structure in songs, I realized belatedly, influenced my own fondness for repetition in poems — even sometimes to a fault. I’ve noticed, over the years, that many poems of mine will close down on a minor repetition. I guess I’ve wanted to create a refrain that might re-invite a reader back, or re-invite myself back into looking at the poem.
For one epigraph, I believe in Fictions from the Self, Kokomo Arnold had written a song called “Blues Boogie,” later recorded by Elvis Presley for Sun Records. The lines go: “Well believe me, don’t that sun look good goin’ down.” I wanted to give some kind of tribute to that musical background I mentioned. I never had the lyric sheet, but when I sent the epigraph to W. W. Norton, I said: “I know that there’s no ‘g’ in ‘goin’ down,” and I was correct. And Kokomo Arnold was still alive, and Norton said this epigraph would require a $75 fee, and I’d have to pay out of pocket, which Kokomo Arnold would receive most of. Norton wouldn’t foot the bill on that. I actually was pleased to pay and keep it in.
But I was slow to recognize the comedy in my poems. Even when people would refer to that in a pleasing way, it sometimes surprised me, because I took things so seriously. But over time, when the comedy has worked, I really have enjoyed making use of it. For a lot of that I feel indebted to certain friendships with people like John Skoyles and Denis Johnson, and with many non-writer friends as well.
So I was probably slightly conscious of that play on “hysteria” and “history.” I hadn’t anticipated getting to that precise point in the poem. But I’ve long thought that if I ever return to that former life of alcohol abuse, that certainly would mean my own form of hysteria — repetitious in the worst way.
I’d love to pick up on transcription too, maybe with the physicality of words on the page for Lucky Coat Anywhere. Or first, to pivot from Envelope of Night, I think of “Night Fog.” Again that title might suggest descriptive evocation, but the poem offers one of this book’s first striking instances of formal / material play on the page itself. Repeated colons set off these dense elliptical utterances. That seemed slightly different than a lot of the early work’s fluid, surreal narrative mutations. And those physical, textural elements anticipate, for me at least, a lot of the textual elements that start appearing early into Lucky Coat Anywhere — with its apparent typos, its sudden capitalizations within individual words. Or the word “inn” seems to get imperiously extracted from “in.” Or mis-transcriptions seem to happen, as with early-2000s OCR technology. “Olive” Street becomes “Clive” Street. Rachel Levitsky’s blurb for Lucky Coat Anywhere does a terrific job crystallizing this “exquisite tease of typographical and formal blunder.” Could you describe the shift from Envelope of Night’s narrative tease to Lucky Coat Anywhere’s textual tease?
One Lucky Coat Anywhere poem that does a great deal of this is “Take the A Train.” I’d always wanted to use that title because of Duke Ellington’s piece, and because of my life in Brooklyn. I wrote the poem in one sitting, and somehow the word “mistake” stayed with me. Probably 20 years ago, partly because of Denise Levertov, and partly because of just picturing the idea of the recording studio, I’d sensed that, because I’d become such a fan of Duke Ellington, if he ever released an album with all the outtakes or mis-takes or where they had to stop and start over, I would want to hear that. I’d want to hear those mis-takes as well. So this idea of mis-takes in a poem shows something not so consciously clever, something that honestly occurs as mistakes occur in conversation. That always has attracted me about the nature of words.
For “Night Fog,” those colons somehow gave me a sense of freedom. To me they suggest something about to be announced — typically some long statement, but here instead something brief. That feeling propelled me through the poem. Like with “Take the A Train,” I tend to see language as opening possible new vistas, potentially serious or comic. Even a mistaken interrelationship of words can create new possibilities. Instead of having some more specific agenda, a poem like “Take the A Train” shows what possibly can happen when a poet gets so caught up in the momentum of non-sequiturs, but still tries to maintain some kind of balance, or to use the refrain to get back to some earlier moment, or can’t fully separate intentional and unintentional mistakes, but makes them all work.
So the colon, again, has that sense of: “Here comes something possibly important, possibly not.” It creates both a halt and a suggestive moment of “Here comes something.” It’s a little more momentous (especially when it’s been set up by preceding colons), even if that’s just a small thing. Again, the signpost of the colon can do that without the poem needing to become very verbose.
I guess subway rides have this “Take the A Train” feeling. You can subtly sense just before the car starts moving again.
I’m a literalist in my personal life to the point of being naive. A work friend used to say, when I wanted something in my life to change so fast: “Michael, sometimes you have to take the local” [Laughter]. And I used to love, when you have to wait for a local, the electrifying rush of an express going by, with all its unrecognizable faces. Of course the local has its own curiosity, moving at a pace where you really can recognize the faces. Eventually I realized I loved both of those subway feelings, even when I was in a hurry.
For “Take the A Train,” I also wondered if you had Kenneth Koch’s One Train in mind. I love, for example, your poem’s elided aphoristic scraps, things like “am told the stove made a sound by itself” — or just all the endless tonal / idiomatic variations.
I’m very familiar with One Train, and I adore Koch’s long poem — especially, I suppose, the fact that it’s actually based on railway signs in Kenya. One thing you just made me think of: I don’t do readings all the time, but often enough. And when I’ve read that poem over the last few years, I really enjoy (and I tell the audience I’m going to do this, because it’s an experiment) arbitrarily reading, say, 10 to 20 percent of the poem: but I might go from the first section to (with no advanced preparation) the eighth section, then the 14th, then back to the third. I’ll read it in any order I choose, and it still seems to work. The non-sequiturs don’t seem any less non-sequitur, but they also seem in keeping with each other. I wish I was writing a little more in that beat over the last few years. I feel I’m writing in a flatter voice. I’m not sure if something’s taking place that I simply don’t recognize yet, that might be interesting to me as a writer or to an audience. There’s a poem, I believe in Lucky Coat Anywhere, called “Black Horses in White Envelopes.”
Yeah, it opens the book.
That poem feels steadier because of the subject matter. This idea of black horses in white envelopes actually came from the literal fact of these toy horses from a boardgame I had found — only the horses and not the gameboard. I bought five of them at one time, and tried to work with those fragments. I’ve often worked in a longer line, but also with parts that can be separated by couplets or asterisks or numbers or something. I really enjoy playing with that lightness. It just feels genuine sometimes as a way of approaching subject matter. I remember Robert Creeley talking about writing in a small notebook, and realizing: well, the size and shape of this notebook can dictate to me a formality for how these poems might appear with line breaks.
When Creeley came out with Pieces, way back in 1969 or 1970, I remember walking into a bookstore in Cambridge Masachusetts, and here’s a new book by Creeley. Even though I was immediately going to buy it, I just stood transfixed in this aisle of books, reading for 10 or 15 minutes. I couldn’t stop looking at that fragmentation taking place literally in Pieces. I didn’t adapt that as a way of writing, but that model for how work might break down definitely stayed as a belated influence. Or even for the Robert Duncan epigraph you mentioned, I remember in Structure of Rime how my relationship to the book came through that one particular series that comes and goes, those kinds of lyric-refrain statements he would use, with the mind sliding just slightly away — fluidly towards something slightly unexpected, not fully set up, just the way the mind goes slightly adrift for a moment and then returns, and how natural that is.
It might sound naive and simplistic, but I’ll tell students sometimes: “You’re at a traffic light. You’re anxious to get to the appointment (medical, professional, a date or whatever) by 2 PM. But at this traffic light, a person crosses reminding you of someone you haven’t seen for years, and for five seconds, despite your anxiousness to get to the appointment, your mind goes slightly adrift, and then you come back to the reality of the light changing and back to traffic.” This is no complaint against poems that feel very ordered or even preconceived, but fragmentation interests me for showing another possibility for how something could happen fluidly. That makes me think of music, or of minimal black-and-white drawing, but with one swatch of color someplace.
Drawings interest me because I might see five or six in a gallery, all leading up to a major painting, but won’t then feel that I’m looking at something minor in the drawings. They offer their own equivalent to the painting. Just a draft on the wall might interest me just as much. I’ve often wanted to do a reading with the first draft posted on a wall, or as a visual projecting behind me, with whatever marks it has on it — so that everyone can see this physical piece as well as hear it.
I do a lot of drawing as an amateur. Again, I can be much too prone to over-controlling. But inadvertently, I might sketch or draw on a sheet of paper, while typing a poem that maybe doesn’t yet work, and suddenly a weak drawing and an undeveloped possibility for a poem start making a very interesting visual combination, almost like two orphans propping up each other.
Your “Black Horses in White Envelopes” title points to your Envelope of Night title, just as Lucky Coat Anywhere maybe points back to the raincoat in “Dear Z.” Of course windows, trains, shovels, moons also circulate across your corpus, from one book to the next — again like Duncan’s “Structures of Rime” series. Could you speak to some of these recurrent elements, and their ongoing ability to preoccupy your (conscious or not) poetic thoughts?
Growing up, as a child, windows, the moon…I would always personify the moon. I felt like I could talk to the moon. I still, as an adult, feel like I can talk to the moon. Doesn’t matter what phase it’s in. My sister had a window too high up to look out of, but that made the moon all the more mysterious. Her room always seemed special because of this window slightly higher up, where once in a while you would see something like the moon outside it.
And in grad school I got self-conscious about, in particular, using the word “window.” For one draft I said: “I’m going to change this, if it works, to a door.” I didn’t want to be monotonous. But that all was occurring very naturally. For one piece collected in Envelope of Night, called “The House,” “window” becomes a major structural point. I’m very aware of returning to some of these quasi-images, because I have almost like a friendship with them. In some writings I’ve only shown to a few people, “moon” turns up a great deal, and I’m trying to milk new possibilities from these fascinations, in different ways.
Some of this goes back to a simple love for fairy tales, for a world where all is animated. Even politically, I still can feel that way, like anything is possible. Or there’s endless possibility when I walk my dog, just because I’ll notice things I otherwise wouldn’t. As silly as it sounds, one day while we stood beside an oak tree, I wondered: If trees could name themselves, what they would call themselves? It wouldn’t be “Oak Tree.” But that type of free-floating imagination, and those types of favorite things get threaded through the poems. “Field-glasses,” or “eyeglasses” — just those words themselves always interested me.
Actually, a frustration I’ve had of late is…I’ve been writing what I’ve called an a-day-at-a-time book, full of journal entries, but mostly in verse, not very prose-y. I’ll do it every summer for a few months, with everything basically fragmentary. Once in a while a narrative might develop, but never really gets separated from the whole.
And one thing that has concerned me over time is that, with a lot of my poems, they might have appeared in magazines in the late 80s, but then not in book form until 1997 or 2001. My books don’t necessarily track what I wrote over the last three or four years. So any sense of a public poetic identity can feel askew at times. Even with Envelope of Night covering such various kinds of work, I’ll still need to find, even as a reader myself, some center as I glance back at it. I thought Marion Wilson’s drawings do a bit of that, because of the house concern and that sense of a repetition of certain elements you’ve described: “window,” “envelope,” etcetera. Or certain book covers, like Susan Lyman’s for None, River, have helped with that. Her cover created this much more concrete, much more plausible landscape for the abstraction of this title. These are small things, but it was just a wonderful surprise when Kazim called that day out of the blue — and then all the labor they put into the selected.
The word “rumination” also comes to mind. We’ve talked about repeated motifs, repeated images. You’ve mentioned returning to past projects and to earlier drafts. You clearly hold the details of this whole lived poetic trajectory in your mind quite concretely. You’ve also discussed sometimes trying to discover the intention in your own work. And I wonder more generally about the place of thinking in your poetics. One early Envelope of Night poem, “The Fires They Kept,” has the lines: “if in the stellar coast of evening, I could only know my name…I would think I would stop hating thinking, which is the only feeling I know, which survives thinking, even more lastly than thinking.” Could you discuss a bit what place thinking and / or hating thinking holds both in your early work and throughout your writing — and again how that all might reflect a poetics of getting sober?
Robert Creeley mentioned in an interview or essay that the ideal would be to think with the poem as you write it, to be hand-in-hand with both the poem and the thinking — which always stood out to me because of my own tendency to overthink. And this does tie directly to sobriety. The doctor who invited me to an AA meeting told me…or the next day, after that first meeting, I thought: Well I do have a problem, but I’m not like these people. But he said something I would never forget (like the Tranströmer letter). The back of my neck still rises when I mention this. After the meeting, he said: “I have a suggestion for you. Don’t drink, just for tonight.” The next meeting was the next morning. And he said: “Don’t drink. Don’t think, and go to the next meeting.” And when he said “Don’t think,” something opened up inside me. Nobody had ever said that to me. In my extreme stupidity, I thought: My god, what does this man know about me that I never knew about myself? And he immediately upped it with the statement: “The reason I’m saying ‘Don’t think,’ at this moment, is I feel right now that thinking for you would not be thinking — it would be agitation.”
Despite years of sobriety, I still will start overthinking a day-to-day decision or problem. I’m sure this creeps into how I look at things I’ve written. If I start thinking, I quickly move to overthinking, and really not thinking. It remains an agitation. I have little tricks I try to do to bring myself back from that. I enjoy the song-writing and drawing as a complete amateur, not doing it professionally. I can listen to a song I’ve attempted, just singing acapella and improvised. It’s very easy to like that even if it doesn’t “work” at all. That doesn’t bother me. Or with drawing, it might be like: If I do this, I might destroy the drawing, but I want to try anyway. My identity does get tied up with drawing, but in a way that relaxes me.
Again this all reminds me of a remark I would hear in recovery meetings. People would say: “If you lower your expectations, your serenity will rise.” Over a long time I realized that if I did this not only with my personal life, but with my writing, it would really help me. That ties in with a remark William Stafford makes in a short essay in Writing the Australian Crawl. I would hand it out to students. Again I knew he was onto something, but it took me more than a decade to realize what he’d said. He said that 90% of what he wrote was like most conversation — it didn’t amount to much. Once sober, when I looked at that, not only did I identify with the comment, and feel comfortable with it, but I also immediately thought: Gee, with 10% of your frequent writing, every few years you probably have a pretty interesting book [Laughter]. But that comfort zone of feeling like Yeah, a lot of this won’t amount to much, but it’s part of my practice of being a writer — again those kinds of directions and signposts were invaluable to me. I just wish I could practice them a bit more clearly sometimes in my personal life day to day.