What to make of one’s past poetic itinerancies, of one’s having been “blown about in the landscape…in the economy,” of one’s acute training in “tracking and shuttling between a focus on the single subject and the collective as if seen from above, the detail and the whole”? What to foreground (having since become a well-regarded essayist) from one’s Schuyler-esque disposition towards “freely espousing idea after idea”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Brian Blanchfield. This present conversation (transcribed by Nicole Monforton) focuses on Blanchfield’s book A Several World, recipient of the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin Prize. Blanchfield and I began this conversation a few months before the release of his collection Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which would go on to win a Whiting Award in Nonfiction. We later returned to our discussion once the sustained public clamor for Proxies finally began to quiet down, with Blanchfield now finding himself an assistant professor at the University of Idaho. Blanchfield, also the author of Not Even Then, also teaches in the low-residency MFA Writing Seminars at Bennington College.
ANDY FITCH: Both Maggie Nelson and Christopher Nealon refer to intriguing “collisions” within your work. This term may not precisely convey the exquisitely patterned patina A Several World provides, but I also have read you describe vacillations, in your emotional life, between playing the roles of rescuer/protector and dreamy (solitary) brooder, and I wondered if we could situate this book on some equivalent personal continuum — even while placing its construction in the Mountain West in the early 2010s. In a dialogue with Maggie, for instance, you once described detecting new connotations in the phrase “queer subject” as you resettled from New York to Missoula. You mention recognizing more immediate reasons to organize, to stand in solidarity as a threatened minority, and the purposes of staying visibly queer. And to the extent that A Several World does reclaim the pastoral’s queer origins, you have realized this more public project of standing in solidarity even while pursuing more solitary or at least private pleasures. So could you speak, now, with a bit more distance, to the lived history of how A Several World’s particular vectors of embodied and intellectualized, idyllic and socially attuned or socially assertive poetics all came together? We could bring in Herrick, and a sense of simultaneously shared and divergent (at times contested or concealed or exclusionary) spheres or planes of existence. We could discuss the physical/cultural topography you delineate so clearly, as well as of course tensions within those settings, tensions within the individual subject placed within those settings.
BRIAN BLANCHFIELD: Sure. So much of that is so sensitive and astute — thank you. The former Missoula resident in me thanks the current Laramie resident in you for that sensitivity. I lived in Missoula and was teaching at the University of Montana from 2008 until 2011, and those were the primary years that I was writing this book. My first book, Not Even Then, very much takes place in New York City, where I was living when it was published in 2004. I think it’s true that A Several World, if it is still urbane in some respects, has definitely moved upcountry and is itinerant in ways that I was after leaving New York.
Missoula is at the top end of the Bitterroot Valley. It’s a blue dot in a big red state. Everything around Missoula is red. You know, the notion of a pastoral mode and the history of the pastoral poem was something that occurred to me without my seeking it. When I looked out the back window upstairs in the house I rented in Missoula, I would sometimes see a shepherd driving a flock across Waterworks Hill. It doesn’t get more bucolic than that. At the same time, this was the first experience in my adult life where the context for my queerness, especially for my new relationship with my current partner John, was fraught and uneasy. So I think that consciously staging my or anyone’s queer experience and queer desire in a place that looks like Arcadia but that, well…I mean Missoula is, or rather Montana is, the place that residents call “the last best place.” That’s on bumper stickers. That’s the slogan for the state. So there’s something inherently nostalgic and protective and sort of retrenched, conservative, something which the pastoral mode’s history and tradition brought alive and made vexed for me. So I wanted to stage my real understanding of queer experience and queer desire over and against this idyllic setting, and register some of the friction. I think that catches fire especially in the last, say, third of the book, and also perhaps in the “History of Ideas” poems in the middle.
I would like to say a bit about the title. A Several World comes from a very small 17th-century Robert Herrick poem. The poem in its entirety reads, “Here we are all by day. By night, we’re hurl’d / by dreams, each one, into a several world.” So that poem provides a framework for some of the work of this book, which, just as you suggest, is to combine and to separate individual experience and individual subjectivity with/from the commons, or the body politic. So, sure, here we are all by day, yet nightly we each individuate, in dreams. The way I read Herrick, that individuation belies and undermines the premise that we hold together, that we unite as a body, and I’m interested in that. So that was part of my daily consideration about living in Missoula, where it was difficult to be out and open, and where interpersonal politics were not as progressive as the profile of the town might lead you to believe.
In terms of how such dualities get enfolded within the musicality of this single text, it would interest me to place, perhaps alongside the autobiographical or experiential, one pointed intellectual component of the book’s combined project. This component arrives early, in an Eve Sedgwick quotation tracking the limited efficacy of a paranoid mode of reading, a mode which places its political faith in exposure (as a form of talking cure, or a resolution of injustice through an articulation of that injustice). Of course A Several World’s own cultivation of at times entangled syntax, of slang, of obscure terms, playful coinages, all could seem, to some readers, to call for a thorough decoding. And yet I doubt that you desire any such constrained, prescriptive response. So most broadly, what aspects of a paranoid reading process do you see this book provoking, recouping, perhaps redirecting to more playful ends? How especially do such concerns play out in A Several World’s presentation of a lyric subject? You mentioned, for instance, fleeting glimpses of the shepherd from your upstairs window, which made me also imagine your perspective on A Several World’s particular poetic “I” forever shifting.
When I’m quoting Sedgwick in the title of “Paranoia Places Its Faith in Exposure,” which is a chapter title for her and a line that she repeats in Touching Feeling, I think probably my first attraction to that phrase is its nearly alive and vibrating potential allegory, in which paranoia, faith, and exposure would all be capitalized entities. There’s something about substantive nouns that sometimes jumps out to me as almost personified, like players in an allegory. So I’ll cop first to just saying I’m drawn to the minor drama that you can visualize when Paranoia places its Faith in Exposure. It’s also a very melodic phrase.
The poet in me is always responding to something in the music and the theatre in language, parallel to the content or the semantic level. Sedgwick does mean, in fact, that after however many decades of postwar critical theory and literary criticism (or D.A. Miller’s sense of reading as detective work), a paranoiac way of reading is not enough. It’s like Rachel Maddow’s segment “They’re Not Embarrassed,” in which Republicans have no shame about this week’s overt treachery. If “Yes, you’re right, Dick Cheney’s old friends are now responsible for energy policy” becomes a given, then it’s not enough merely to expose that. Then what?
I’m not quite sure how I would connect that to what you’re drawing attention to, the sort of omnivorous diet of this book, with, as you say, slang, proper names, and maybe sometimes twisted and suspensive syntax and occasional forthright candor and self-revelation. It’s never my project to encode or encrypt. But there are different kinds of clarity, of disclosure, which my early teacher Heather McHugh liked to say was a bringing into the light what was formerly in the dark, by whatever means. I love when a poem is both building and constructing its meaning, in an associative logic or bricolage, and also delivering direct speech, kind of alla prima, straight-shot — managing both modes. That’s the kind of work that I like reading. I’m looking at a stack of books I brought for this conversation. I’m thinking of Marianne Moore, Stephen Rodefer, John Wieners, Ed Roberson, Merrill Gilfillan, Cecil Giscombe, Jacqueline Waters, Robyn Schiff, among others who plateau in a kind of everyday clarity and are working a constructivist or collage semantics as well.
Just for one example of your own nonencoded yet conspicuous traits, of the spatial theatre you construct throughout this book, I detect an embrace or celebration of terms that simultaneously evoke fluidity and stasis, of terms that, depending on context, could serve either as noun or verb. And these syntactical pivots can arise mid-sentence for the reader, providing great pleasure. “Landscape,” for instance, becomes a verb at one point, alongside verbs such as “ties,” “rails,” “steps” — all of which could be nouns. Whereas “mint” arrives here as noun at a moment when I first expected a verb. “Record” can serve both functions and will change the sonic and syntactical direction of a phrase, as does the more playful, slangy “squire.” For me, finding the syntactical sense of a long, lovely line of yours often came through reading aloud. There I found traction. And again, that traction felt not so different from stepping into the woods and needing to figure out how to track perception and direction as you go. I love John Ashbery’s blurb here, his lovely description of ideas crystallized as words, and letters dissolving into thought. Could you describe cultivating, to whatever extent consciously or not, those shifts in register that occur “extra fleetingly,” and how/why they seemed so relevant to A Several World?
The first thing I want to say is R.I.P. Little J.A in a prospect of flowers. Then, I can say, thank you. It’s always good to hear how those moments of instability are resolved when the work is read aloud, and when the music is part of how you’re hearing the poem coming across. I’m not sure that I can speak consciously about that methodology. It’s something that probably goes all the way back to my affinity for Hart Crane, who fits Ashbery’s description of crystallizing and dissolving, and who has been someone I’ve kind of fought with and luxuriated in since my first book Not Even Then — Crane’s “logic of metaphor” and his keenness put words into play with other words to reveal something extra-semantic in their combination. When I think of someone who is sort of dancing with language that way, I also think of Julian T Brolaski, and, in some poems, D.A. Powell, another writer I cite as a scion of the queer pastoral, a revivalist in that mode.
I had asked about moments of fluidity/stasis, when one word seems to reshape the syntax not only of what comes after, but of what came before. Contractions and apostrophe usage also can play out this way. Plenty of idiosyncratic constructions appear, such as “casualty’s” “scratch’s,” “shouldnt’ve,” “bird’d.” These stand out most notably of course in the piece “S Apostrophe S,” with its “Memphis’s (emphasis mine)” line. This soon gets followed by the funny rhetorical question “Hey, how was the peroration”? I thought again of Ashbery, of his poem that uses “didja,” like “But didja ever think of what that body means?”
As you were saying that, I was flipping through the book and remembering where I have “scratch’s.” Maybe I’ll just read this quick excerpt from “Funny Loss of Face.” This is from right in the middle of the poem: “Everyone’s in for the night except / you, who had flown all day didn’t want to fall asleep / here. I was telling your neck relax your eyes / were going to wake up raw without solution / for lenses, so it was better you find the little baths they had at home. Why it was / funny I suggested we concoct them from scratch’s hard / to say, and whether one of us or which was / good about everything.”
That’s a poem where I’m giving a sense of a kind of dialogue between lovers. It’s Christmas season here right now and the radio was just playing “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” This is kind of a queer “Baby It’s Cold Outside” poem (except here the hookup has happened already), asking the very new beloved to stay, overhearing him suggest that his contact lenses are going to harden if he doesn’t go home or back to the hotel. The poem is called “Funny Loss of Face,” and there’s a saving of face that is urgent throughout this poem, the lover-speaker’s (who is being rejected in this poem or whose tryst is being cut short).
I like that you draw attention to the contraction, where perhaps the scratch is enacted, in a sudden predicate after the elongated subject. It makes sort of a record scratch on that speech. It’s a consciously un-lovely moment in the poem, to have that sort of contraction, I suppose. But it’s part of how I hear the music of that passage, of that evening. Sure, there’s something of Ashbery in it. With his passing I miss the unique mix of high and low registers, for sure, but also his slippery dimensionality. This is actually a poem that I showed first to my downstairs neighbor, poet Matthew Burgess, whose window looked out at the same ivy wall the poem begins by watching — and whose adventures sometimes mirrored mine. I may even have lowered the poem down to him by a pulley system we had. So there is something happening within the window view, framed, as well as in the room where the window is, and the alternation between is diffuse — I see that now as an Ashberian move.
Again contractions seem to offer collisions of a sort. They also connote the vernacular. And still with that Memphis poem in mind, I wonder how this book’s poetics, like Memphis, edge onto the specifically Southern in some way. Or did anything about language-learning that you experienced growing up in the South somehow return as you migrated from New York to Montana? Many Southerners seem to feel at home in these mountains and/or the localized cultures they produce.
There’s a number of, I guess, selves across my lifetime that show up in that poem “S Apostrophe S.” “S Apostrophe S” is the answer, in a way, at the beginning, to the question that ends the poem: “And whose little boy is he?” There’s a child who is very much his mother’s son in this poem. And perhaps an example of something encoded, since my mother’s name is Sandra.
Memphis, in that passage you cite, comes in the stanza: “Aristophanes and Judas, but not / Johns. Memphis’s (emphasis mine) / on the Mississippi, but not on the Nile.” That’s actually very close to an item that I once created for a style sheet when I worked (for years) as a book copyeditor in New York. It might have meant (to other editors): let’s not add an “s” after a possessive apostrophe with either classical or mythic names — underscoring the distinction by pointing out you wouldn’t add one with Memphis, the ancient figure, but you would with Memphis, the Tennessean city.
This poem is sort of a series of self-enclosed little conundrums or problems in language, and the interceding inquisitor is driving at some truth or reckoning. It’s a peculiar poem. I think in this book it stands out, as unlike the rest. The Southerner in me is staged here along with my other subject positions.
And the relationship between the Southerner me and the poet/adjunct/itinerant me? This is in part the question of my third book, Proxies, which Nightboat also published. It’s a book of essays that is on one level autobiographical, that may seek to integrate the queer intellectual poet that I am with the son of a truck driver and a Primitive Baptist that I am, who grew up in the central Piedmont in white working-class North Carolina in the 70s and 80s, and with this person who has struggled for a career in academia and who has worked at times as a secretary. In other words, to integrate all the things that I am. Proxies is the one place where I have consciously worked through my origins as a Southerner, but I think you’re astute to say it comes out in the poems in A Several World, especially the ones that are subtended by landscape and by an attention to mountains and foothills.
On the topic of integrating these different aspects of your experience, of your poetics, into a single project, your invocational poem “Eclogue Onto an Idea” seems to do that well, again with its pivot on “idea’s” (with a possessive “s”). And “Eclogue Onto an Idea” sets up the tone for what follows. “The History of Ideas, 1973-2012,” for instance, might seem to mock a midcentury encyclopedic approach, but its alphabetized, essayistic, aphoristic structures also recall Roland Barthes and his mode of veiled autobiography amid the academic ventriloquy. Or for “Eclogue Onto an Idea,” I also kept thinking of James Schuyler’s “Freely Espousing.” I sensed the same overture-like opening, the same free spiritedness amid intellectual ideas typically conveyed in a more serious tone or register or idiom, the same willingness to conjure sources as sites of play and as more intimate forms of relating to the reader. Do such Barthesian and Schuyleresque tones come across for you as well looking back?
Wow. When I think about “Freely Espousing,” which was likewise the first poem in Schuyler’s book Freely Espousing, I admire its selecting eye, the way it scores a roving attention, finding first a couple, then a copse of trees in a landscape, and keeps moving and keeps selecting, sort of backforming an organizing intellect who is doing all the seeing (“situation’s giving onto someone”). And it’s reassuring you think about “Eclogue Onto an Idea” in relation to “The History of Ideas” sequence which comes some 40-odd pages after it. I wrote “Eclogue Onto an Idea” when Spork Press, the chapbook publisher of The History of Ideas 1973-2012, asked me to do an afterward for that suite of 12 poems. I tried to write something in prose and ultimately did produce something for them that was kind of an essay on 1973 itself, the year I was born, or my impressions of it, and the process of those poems. But I also wrote “Eclogue Onto an Idea” as a first attempt to do what Spork was asking me to do, which was to write something that would be a kind of gloss on those poems, a “hermeneutic friend,” as Allen Grossman would have said.
So “Eclogue Onto an Idea” is a sort of score or set of instructions for the methodology of “History of Ideas.” I like to think of them as conceptual idylls, these 12 poems, with this eclogue in some way a kind of recipe for them. So “the foreground and the horizon are idea’s” literally speaks to the form of those poems — each of which begins with a formulation of fact from the four-volume Dictionary of The History of Ideas (published in 1973), and ends with a platitude or an aphorism from present-day popular intellectuals such as Malcolm Gladwell, Antonin Scalia, Temple Grandin, Jill Bolte Taylor, Thomas Friedman. Each poem draws a landscape of an idea, one idea at a time, and opens onto a scene that takes place in that landscape in the history of authority or alienation or empathy, and so forth.
So each of those poems is sort of mordant, and tracks a kind of cascade from 1973 (when this academic humanism and structuralism inherent in a “history of ideas” seemed possible) to the point where we are now, at least in American intellectual history. It’s cheeky to pretend that I’m updating the epistemologies since 1973, well beyond what the poems actually can or want to do. Mostly the fun I had with them was opening onto a scene that could be situated inside the idea, as if it were a landscape. They’re the only fictive poems I’ve ever written, as far as I know. To that extent they’re my pastorals in this book. But also, as you suggest, my own life is inscribed in there in different ways, as Schuyler’s was in Freely Espousing.
Again with Barthes in particular (and like your “History of Ideas” section), when he assembles an intellectual catalogue, he doesn’t offer definitional finality. He offers phrases, poses, gestures. So we already have moved beyond the realm of any straightforward, encyclopedic/ontological approach.
Yeah, he is a very important writer to me. I’ve been living in his final three books, the posthumous seminars: How to Live Together, The Neutral, and The Preparation of the Novel. When you say “catalogue,” those are the books I think of, for the way that they assemble a dossier or, as he says, “merely open a dossier” on one idea after another, and then let association build his argument. Or there isn’t really even an argument. He wants to put things together and think about how they cohabitate. And sure, that’s kind of the mode in the “History of Ideas” sequence. As a matter of fact, when I began Proxies, a book of 24 essays (exactly twice the number of the “History of Ideas” poems), they seemed to me to be the complement or inverse, the flip side of the coin from these poems.
The essays, which observe as a constraint a total suppression of recourse to authoritative sources, are just what I know or estimate or remember or misremember about one subject after another (Br’er Rabbit, the locus amoenus, house sitting, foot washing, tumbleweed, frottage, etcetera), whereas the poems were about preparing an imaginative scene located between two takes on a concept — separated by 39 years, my lifespan at the time. Roland Barthes is the godparent of both, for his semiotic analyses and also for later in his life his interest in assemblage and his forays in life-writing, and his faith in artistry over mastery.
As you describe synthesizing disparate components of your own experience, could you say more about adopting that role of the Barthesian amateur (the one who loves the intellectual propositions he/she takes up)?
There is something to say about that. My first editor, for Not Even Then, Cal Bedient, sort of objected to the sense of an amateur or the performance of an unsophisticated speaker in language that at other points could seem elevated or complex in the poems I was writing. I often feel that I want the sense of someone, if not amateurish, then at least someone who is subject to contingency and whim, who has no supervisory vantage but is down in the weeds, who’s being sort of blown about in the landscape, in the economy. I’m thinking of the poem “Open House” in A Several World, of the speaker and his lover/partner (my partner John). They are literally blown into, drift into, a realtor’s open house that she’s holding for a home that they cannot afford, and they move within the rooms of that real estate, returning occasionally to Wanda, the realtor. Should I read a little?
“What is it about the pretense we belong here / that requires an agent? Or, is that the trouble, Wanda? To whom / to speak at the bank and about what not yet are we / prepared to say. We blew in notional.” That passage comes between references to Hart Crane and Eileen Myles. It asks in a way: who is our agent and who sanctions this purchase? Who sanctions this relationship? Who sanctions our identity here (here in this book, here in this pretend house)? So I don’t know if I still fight Cal Bedient on being an amateur myself in poetry, but I do still hold valuable the sense of somebody, despite his experience or agency, being blown about by other forces including and especially economic ones.
Yeah, I still feel like I haven’t done a good job adequately addressing the line-by-line pleasures found throughout this book — pleasures you have referred to as provoked by “parallels, resets, likenesses, echoes, suspensiveness, aoristic time, associations, and breakages as a means to advance (and follow) meaning or engagement.” I’ve flipped to “Edge of Water, Nimrod Falls, Montana”: “Behind, / upshore, a study of the swimming hole and his buttery / way down the rocks, rippling dilemma / who, it will be said, must learn to shave / whose aptitude on his own pertains.” And throughout A Several World I appreciate especially your attention (going along with this emphasis upon artistry perhaps instead of mastery) to the pleasures of the reader, as opposed to the heroic achievements of the author. So I wonder if we could discuss more broadly how this book employs or inverts tropes of masculine heteronormative agency, instead privileging “The void chasing the ample rush,” the “Wool in the air,” the call to position oneself “On your stomach, rear back high.” A Several World brags about its knowledge of holding ladders. It boasts: “I know angles and give in the ground, I know / footed flip locks and anticipation coming and going backward / down.” So many moments occur in which we can track what Gertrude Stein might call this book’s bottom nature, as when “Man Roulette” tells us “The barometer is bottoming.” Should we pursue A Several World’s thematics of the bottom?
Sure. I may even cast it a little more widely as “bodied.” The passages you just read are ones I’m glad you cite for sensations of bodyliness — is that a word?
I like it.
Perhaps they offer a bodied sense of a speaker, especially a kind of sexualized body, a queer sexualized body in the world. Yeah, that is very much a part of what I respond to as a reader of poetry. Also those poems that you cited are ones that I consider if not love poems then a kind of romantic us-against-the-world poems. In my dating life in Missoula each date was a kind of caper or heist in public, and that rubs off here in the Montana poems.
There’s a line at the end of this book’s shortest poem (“Pick me up can also be as frequency and antenna do”) that I wrote for someone in an email, wanting him to read it the way I wanted him to read it, which was as a flirtation. I was annotating a poem of his. I was thinking through his poem. So I guess I want to say that there’s a towardness in this book that says: if you pick me up on this frequency, this is for you. I hope that has everything to do with readers’ pleasures — not being exclusive, but signaling as a body in the world, attuned to other bodies, on similar bandwidth.
And wasn’t your dance work happening simultaneously?
Yeah it was. It was part of what you called the “spatial theatre” in this work.
You’ve described this inviting or alluring embodiedness, one that coaxes us towards engagement. How did your experience with dance at that time help focus these attentions or sensitivities or embodied solicitations?
The dance work I was doing then, which was training in Viewpoints choreography and doing movement improv, and for a while teaching (with a choreographer) integrative movement-and-writing workshops, was a blast. I miss that. I’m speaking to you with a bum right knee at the moment. And really, that sort of work in the “movement field,” as we called it, taught me less about a physical, solicitous, erotic quality, and more about what we were speaking about earlier — the one among the many, and the individual in the collective.
And just to clarify, by “solicitous” I meant more like inviting us to engage, not exclusively sexual, but just: “I have placed my body before you (your body).”
Sure, yeah. I hope that A Several World permits and suggests the bodyliness of the reader too. I also think it’s valuable to say that I learned a lot in that choreography and that improv work about tracking and shuttling between a focus on the single subject and the collective as if seen from above, the detail and the whole. I think of that shuttling energy (between being on the ground, seeing only what is in front of you, and then attaining some synoptic perspective onto your fuller context) as the mechanics of this book, in part. A fantasy verticality.
Well we’ve discussed movement a bit, but you also brought up the “Open House” poem. Even in a book that has so much to do with movement, architecture stays quite prominent. Here I recall the line (from “Gadabout”) “Habitat comes by habit, home by homing in.” Relationships with staying power might yield, as in “Open House,” to residences, dwelling places. Though A Several World also offers sauna-esque scenes of precocious “Alberts,” structuring different types of spaces. So I think of Spenser, a poet I’ve never read, but who apparently includes amazing rooms. I think of Auden’s long poetic sequence about all the rooms in a house and getting settled there with his partner. And amid the feeling “extra / fleetingly” in A Several World, these alternately sturdy and/or steamroom-like architectural tracings help provide some sense of a structural basis. Could you discuss the dynamics, the relation in dance between the movement of the individual body and the architectural space that houses it?
That’s a great question. There are a couple of ways that I might begin to answer that. One is that part of the little magic trick of “Open House” is that these two people who can’t afford the home that’s being shown that day end up sort of living there and inviting the realtor to stay for coffee and to play this board game they’ve found. There’s a line in the poem toward the end that polishes a little solecism or logic problem I’m probably too fond of: that “dwelling” and “residence” and “habitation” all come from verbs that mean to stay or even to stay too long, or to linger habitually, suggesting that that’s how a home is created, at least etymologically. So “Open House” is a poem that I guess enacts that.
There’s probably a way in which a number of the poems, even beyond the ones you mention, are doing what you say — creating a kind of architecture from an idea. Certainly “Man Roulette,” which refers to a kind of online speed-dating site that occupied me for a summer in Montana, opens onto a series of temporary rooms, with “What booth is this?” the repeated question, resetting each stanza. When you click past a possible partner or date on Man Roulette, you’re moving sort of out the back door of one booth and opening another: “The next booth / is one I have to man for someone. An emergency, I’ll / meet you there. // Is this even a booth? In this booth there is / room for one. Get in here and hold me up. / I would fall without you.”
It might be that poems create architecture when stanzas are sort of templates for one another, equivalences. So part of the work is to occupy those architectures. I don’t know, but I’m drawn to your question. The often-repeated fact that “stanza” means room in Italian partly suggests that a poem is a place to inhabit. I often think of my favorite books as habitable. You know, those are the ones that I return to, the ones that I can kind of live in. So I’m drawn to that.
We’ve moved back to Roland Barthes here, who says he only wants to travel to habitable places, not to visitable places. Also in terms of this book’s spatial theatre, could you say more about “the inversion”? As a fellow mountain resident for a time of life, I probably ought to know what you mean, both materially and allegorically, but don’t. So could you describe Missoula’s inversion phenomenon, perhaps as personalized poetic affect?
It’s funny: in Arizona, where I lived, long-time residents speak of the monsoon as the single weather event of the year. Everything changes in the monsoon. It happens about two-and-a-half months of the year. Everything you thought you knew about this landscape changes in the monsoon. There are mosquitoes again. There is humidity again, storms, rainfall. Everything you had become accustomed to in the other 10 months is subverted. In Montana and I think in valley towns (it’s not so much a mountain thing as a valley-town thing), you have not the monsoon, but the inversion. When you first get to Missoula, everyone warns you about the inversion. It’s this thing that you learn will completely remake the place and your time there. In essence, it’s a convection deficit. The cool air is trapped under warmer clouds that settle over the valley, and for weeks at a time the sun is sort of a distant, dim bulb, a memory of light. You’ve got this cloud cover that, until a big wind comes along, is not going to move. So you feel this sort of stasis and this real sense of being trapped under there.
It does relate in fact to what I’ve called elsewhere an “us down here” feeling that you have in a valley town like Missoula. You can always climb up any of the surrounding tall, rolling hills and get an overview, a totalizing aerial perspective on the entirety of where you live and where you all live. This creates the sense of spatial theatre, so that you never forget that you can be overseen. There’s also a pleasure, within that, of going overlooked, I guess, which goes back to being out on a queer caper in a town like many in the Mountain West (maybe this is queering Richard Hugo?). Anyway, “The Inversion” is maybe the other poem in this book that owes something to “Freely Espousing,” with the selecting eye that moves point-to-point throughout the town: the truck stop, the steer moving despair around, the highway, the hotboxing boys getting stoned, the parkour kids, and this sort of afterlife light of the inversion, this sort of white glow over everything.
I’m never too far, when thinking about Schuyler’s poem, from understanding how else it meant, even in 1969. He was freely espousing idea after idea without committing to any one in that poem. That was part of the pleasure. But this was also already a politicized phrase, suggesting that Schuyler as a gay man was not someone who could freely espouse a partner. So I really like how he marries a methodology with this subtle political content that I think he captures beautifully in the title of that poem.
Returning to the inversion’s “us down here” ethos, and how that redirects broader public attention, and also thinking about Schuyler’s more private mode of espousing, I wonder if we have covered the “we” here directly enough. If we think of the “we” as possibly containing significance beyond the mere plural of the “I,” then could we characterize (have we already?) what other elasticities of “we” A Several World discovers, or your utopian sense of the “we” that you see this book reaching towards, or that you now might want to explore further? What potential energy does “we” still hold for you?
It’s one of the things that I dread in popular presentations of poetry: you know, listening by accident to Garrison Keillor, if I don’t change the station soon enough, I’m going to hear that awful unanimous “we” in the poems that he reads and features on that show. Or in a casually presumptuous declaration like “We lost one of our best poets yesterday.” It’s like, oh really? Who’s we? Who says so?
I’m very much committed, almost as a golden rule, to the idea that “we” is not the plural of “I.” That being said, “we” is probably the pronoun that is most used in this book. It’s something that I think about quite a lot. I do have a sense of, if not a utopian “we,” then a “we” that might describe a kind of troupe or battalion or a membership that in some places is queer, in some places the precariat class in the U.S., or otherwise constructed of a solidarity or intersectionality that binds like-spirited people, even the fictive clusters of them that move through these poems. Us down here, world-making.