Part Two now up here.
LS: Let’s talk about the form of The Mad Song: 13 sections of five prose paragraphs of varying length, each deploying an anaphoric and/or alliterative foundation that oscillates between the imperative and the conditional. How organic or prescripted was that form? Jack Spicer talks about the serial poem as something that you can’t really know the end of while you're writing it, and I wonder how true that is for The Mad Song, too?
MS: The Mad Song could go on forever. There could be coda upon coda that equal or surpass the original 13 chapters. Or you could read it as a literal cycle. As soon as you read “Some rebel, some citizen, some sage” at the end, it immediately connects you to the beginning of the poem: “Of Bedlam in its prairie pride.” Yes, it’s meant to be read in the order in which I arranged it but you can dip in here and there and pull something out.
The form sat in my mind for years before it spilled out, in a 10-day Rilkean surge, September 2006. About 80% of it was originally composed in that stretch, while the other 20% was cobbled together from older poems that weren’t working on their own, or that were working and I just wanted to steal from. I wanted to see if I could write prose poems using certain elements of lined poetry. Sentence count replaced line count. The direct influence was Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, of course.
The other thing was to replicate the traditional mad song stanza — which is cousin to limerick, except it’s visionary instead of bawdy — as paragraphs. That’s where the three longer and two shorter paragraphs come from, imitating the three long lines and two short of the mad song stanza. Gertrude Stein said that the natural unit of composition for Americans is the paragraph, not the line. I don’t know if I buy that completely but like most pieces of wisdom, it has the air of truth to it. America, with its intricate relationships and disputes between states, its interactions with Latin America, with Canada, with globalization, etc, etc, is an expansive entity. The people too. We need space to think, to talk, to convince, to cajole.
The paragraphs are actually not of varying length: each chapter has three paragraphs of 13 sentences and two paragraphs of 6 and 7 sentences, which combine to make 13. These may represent, say, the walls of a room (not necessarily one of drywall), with one broken to let the light in, or to illustrate the ongoing construction of a world. So I set myself up a structure but in doing that, you’re liberated, as anyone who writes in form, received or invented, will tell you. The anaphora was used to both propel and anchor these sentences but also to create that sense of disjunction. “If Texarkana was Tenochtitlán.” Well, what? Is the reader missing the beginning of that phrase or the end? It’s up to them to fill in the blanks using their imagination and their experience of America, historically, absolutely, but also of today. The things around them that move them. Which is a novel concept in an age that demands everything be spelled out. My job as a poet is not to tell you what to think but to remind you of what you already know. And you know it all. I sometimes think that the American people don’t buy much poetry because they don’t need to: they’re surrounded by poetry in their own speech, in their interactions, and observations. They know it but they don’t call it poetry.
LS: One thing I’m struck by when I read The Mad Song is how it questions assumptions about identity. We live in a world where we’re very keen to assume character based on partial knowledge of speech and actions. But in The Mad Song, there’s no attempt to make us feel that any I, you, or other pronoun attaches to a specific person. The sentences and sentiments of The Mad Song float around the book’s country, waiting to be voiced by a reader, needing to be questioned rather than accepted or rejected. That makes reading a fundamentally active process – how important is this to you?
MS: Paramount. We live in a world in which we are not fully engaged. We’ve floated away from the root of things, which causes us to be more easily swayed and duped because we simply accept what’s given to us. But this is a major thrust of Emerson’s philosophy, so it’s nothing new. The genius of John Ashbery’s poetry — and it’s a wonder why he isn’t read and loved by everyone, even those who “hate poetry” — is that he writes poems that you create as you read them. In school, when you’re forced to analyze a poem and the ubiquitous cry of “Why can’t it just mean what I want it to mean?” is thrown up — well, Ashbery’s poetry is exactly like that. Yes, he provides you with a framework, with words and sentences and punctuation, the storyline, but as a reader, you are asked to be as creative as the poet. It’s wonderful.
I’m not sure my poetry goes as far as his — maybe that’s the anxiety of influence talking — but in a similar way, I’m trying to replicate the country in my work, linguistically, philosophically, musically, spiritually, all the -lys, if I may be allowed. America is not fixed, never has been, never will be. It’s constantly changing, pulsing, moving, contradicting itself, even as it moves ever forward, even in the moment. Even as you read this, you have the opportunity to move the world around you this way or that. It’s self-reliance: you look around and within yourself and you find all the resources you will ever need. It’s all there.
More than that, though, America will always be searching for an identity. It's in this sense that President Obama is the representative American: he had to build himself out of disparate pieces, and that's why he so identifies with America, the place and the idea. Anyone who wants to know about the American character, or about American poetry, should read Constance Rourke’s classic tome, American Humor. It’s such a simple and beautiful explanation of who we are as a people. She puts an emphasis on improvisation and she’s right. That’s why jazz and blues are classical American music. All the great American long poems — Leaves of Grass, The Cantos, The Waste Land, "A", The Maximus Poems, The Dream Songs, Dickinson’s poems, Spring and All — all are unfinished or motley in some way, are incomplete improvisations. Granted, improvisations of high genius, but improvisations nonetheless. Incomplete as their country is and ever will be. This is not to be lamented but celebrated. We, as Americans, are always going on our nerve.
LS: I love the adjacency and contingency of this book, by which I mean specifically the way sentences rub up against and repel each other, like magnets placed pole to pole. Two juxtaposed sentences tempt us to read them as connected, and yet there’s often nothing more than our wishing it and expecting it to be so that makes the connection. This technique is a powerful strategy for resisting narrative assumptions and glib romantic (political) ideologies in favour of a more investigative approach to the stories we take part in and pass around. Would you see this book as a sort of anti-story, a telling of events that wants to get at consequences but also wants us to realize that there’s more going on than a simple cause-and-effect narrative?
MS: It’s a tall tale, a campfire story, a song heard in passing, the amalgamation of the capital around me. Like a Yankee peddler traveling through the Carolinas. I don’t think it’s an anti-story at all. It might not have the traditional moves of a story, but it’s a story nevertheless. A word can be a story. A sound can be a story. Keep in mind, too, that the narrator is “mad.” Or is he/she? That’s part of it. There is a movement from the grand visionary at the beginning to a revelation in chapter 7 and then on to a more inward examination before a summary in the last chapter which leads you on to a potential never-ending plotline.
I was talking to a guy in the bar I live above in North Bennington. Guy was a construction worker, drunk off his ass, a little belligerent. We got talking about the connection between poetry and music, bringing up Bob Dylan as an example. I spouted on about how Dylan has the advantage of music, and that’s why he can write surrealistic lines that anyone invested in it can understand because the music can pick up the slack, can inform the mood or meaning, and the way he sings or sneers implies meaning too. The guy cut me off. “It’s because he tells a story,” he said. Damn it, he’s right. You can get away with anything, written in any way, as long as you’re telling a story, keeping the reader/listener interested. That’s also very American.
LS: Kate Greenstreet, in her fantastic series of first book interviews, always asked this question, and I think it’s particularly apt here. Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
MS: I believe poetry can create change in a person. A person can then change the world.
LS: The Mad Song is a book that believes deeply in citizen-ship even as it howls “no fair” at the way citizens have been time and again betrayed by government and corporations. Its very existence is a kind of participation, a taking-up of the challenge and responsibility of being a citizen. I can’t help but think of William Carlos Williams’ antagonist farmer, an artist composing in his field, in Spring and All: would you see yourself as an artist-citizen?
MS: As an American, there’s no way for me to separate the two. It just is. We are a government of the people. To say you’re not involved is to not live in reality. Whether you like it or not (and many do not), you’re involved. Move to a dictatorship if you don’t want to be a part of the government, to take responsibility. Takes thinking for yourself right out of the equation. We get the government we deserve and ultimately the fault is ours, the people, for what goes on here. We can mutter the live-long day about how corrupt the 43rd presidency was but we didn’t howl loud enough because we didn’t want to disrupt the status quo. I include myself in the indictment.
President Obama is smarter than anyone so far has given him credit for, though I know Bernard Goldberg will disagree. He’s a man of his moment, and, so, is like a poet. He knows that there’s no way for a politician to hide his misdeeds in the Internet age. They come out sooner rather than later. So the “craziest” thing to do is deal honestly with people, and use common sense. That’s why the right-wing is in a tizzy. They can’t lie any more and have any citizen with a brain in her head believe them. Anyone who does indeed believe them is in deep denial, living in The Matrix. This is not to say I have no criticisms of the President right now. As much as I appreciate him being honest with the country, he should also start to remind the citizenry of their power and responsibility to be agents of change, to inspire a little more. He’d do well to read Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country if he’s not already familiar with it.
LS: There’s a wide-ranging set of influences that have come together in this book, and it often makes me think of medieval conceptions of authors, in which an author is compiling or translating other texts, rather than inventing. You’re drawing from Star Wars and Chuck Berry, country music or grunge rock as well as Shakespeare and Stein. What’s the role of influence within this book, or more widely within contemporary poetry, if you want to take on that grand theme?
MS: You can’t be a whole person and not be influenced by what you love. That’s the whole point, learning from others, in life or in art, internalizing the lessons, making them your own. But that’s what America is also. It’s so many things, some disparate, some similar, simultaneously, it’s its own thing. The genius of America is the contradiction, as we know. A land that touts the liberty of all yet was built on slavery and the forced removal of native peoples. Strike-breakers. Beating civil rights marchers. Yet, again, America is never complete, and it never will be. It’s the striving for perfection, not the attainment, which puts our greatness in motion. It’s stupid to say, “I can use this but I can’t use that,” in your poems. It always has been but especially in 2009. I’m lucky to be part of a generation that doesn’t have to deal with avant-garde v. School of Quietude battles, whatever that shit means. Let’s take two poets close by on my book shelf: love Donald Justice, love Kenneth Koch. I can take from everyone and make my own thing.
I’m also of a generation who loves John Ashbery as much as Chuck Berry. I grew up on Dylan, Nirvana, Public Enemy, hundreds more. We’re heavily influenced not necessarily by the lyrics of rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop — though of course we certainly are — but the rhythms and phrasings of the music, the mood it gives, and the “unh.” Is there much difference between Stevens’ “ki-ki-ri-ki / Brings no rou-cou, / No rou-cou-cou” and Little Richard’s “wop-babalu-bop-doo-wop-bam-boom”? If there is, I don’t know it. Anyone who doesn’t realize this is doomed to be left behind. This notion is why Helen Vendler claimed she can’t read poets born after 1970. This is a shame, because she, along with Harold Bloom, despite the arguments against them, are our two preeminent critics of poetry and neither are long for this world.
LS: I want to ask, since I'm first sending you these questions on inauguration eve: what does this new presidency augur in for poetry, and for the possibility of poets-as-citizens? (Or, if you prefer, is the economic crisis a time poetry can become an activity, rather than just an aesthetics, in the public eye, in the way someone like Oppen or Niedecker (in very different ways) or, more recently, Harryette Mullen in her Stein-like manner might advocate?
MS: Everyone’s been focusing on Obama’s admiration for Lincoln but little to nothing has been mentioned about his love for Emerson. I think if you really want to know what propels him, both in his philosophy and in the way he uses language, you should read Emerson’s Essays. They’re prose poems really. Sure, I wish he had picked Harryette Mullen, or, better, Jay Wright, to read at the inaugural, but let’s ease up on Elizabeth Alexander. If the lines had been broken differently, with her, indeed, stilted delivery, I think the criticism would be lightened by the nod to Dr. Williams. There was a lot of Sandburg in there too, which I loved. Imagist splashes. No, the syntax was not very wild but it, like Obama’s speech, moved in a different way than we’re necessarily used to.
The right-wing accused the President of using too much poetry when he campaigned, then they said there wasn’t a sound-byte ready phrase to shove into the history books after his inaugural address. It all comes back/down to telling a story. The President goes for the big picture, the overall effect, while punctuating his speeches with memorable phrases. He and his chief speechwriter could lean a little more on the Emersonian for my taste, a little less on the too-easy “Yes we can!” but Obama clearly knows how to use language, like any good poet should.