Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Interview with Brian Teare and Charles Jensen

Today we feature director Charles Jensen's interview with poet Brian Teare. This is a follow up to yesterday's post: an interview with Paula Bohince. Teare and Bohince will read from their work at George Mason on Thursday at 3p.m. at the M & T tent just outside the Johnson Center.

Brian Teare is the author of the award-winning The Room Where I Was Born, as well as the forthcoming volume Pleasure and two chapbooks. He has received Stegner, National Endowment for the Arts, and MacDowell Colony poetry fellowships.

The poems in Sight Map and The Room Where I Was Born are often concerned with erotic situations, but more than that, they are built from language that is erotic in nature—your words and lines have a richness, a fullness, and a texture that tends to reinforce their meaning. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to the erotic and what you find poetic there?

Well, poetry and the erotic have always had a pretty intense relationship—it’s there in the lyrics of Sappho and Archilochos and Catullus, it’s there even earlier in Gilgamesh and the Homeric epics. Desire as an occasion for song, desire as an occasion for action—those are some of the classic situations from which poetry arises. In that desire often gives the poems their occasions, my work’s no different, and Sight Map in particular is a book whose center is desire—for certainty in love and in faith. It’s lack of certainty that gives the book its shape, which is also pretty classic. As Anne Carson writes of Greek lyric in Eros the Bittersweet, “Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole” left in the lover by their desire for the beloved. Looking back on them, I can see that a lot of the poems in Sight Map are about desire at a physical distance or a psychic remove, and their atmospheres depend upon how emotionally and physically unsettling distance is—whether that’s distance from God or from the beloved.

However, I like that you point out the language of my poems creates “a texture that tends to reinforce” their erotic situations. My day-to-day relationship to writing is based on the pleasure I take in its materials, both its graphic and sonic aspects. I like the look of letters arranged into words, lines and stanzas as much as I like the actual sonorities created by phonemes and syllables hooked together to make words hooked together to make lines, ad infinitum. And though the visual aspect of a poem eventually becomes as important to me as its soundscape, I tend to draft poems by following an aural rhythm—both alliterative and prosodic—and it’s my hope that an essential quality of what I’m writing about adheres in the actual feel of the language. Hopkins called it inscape, the essential quality of the subject as captured by his prosodic system, but I’d hesitate to lay claim to anything so systematic. Sometimes I think writing is desire’s own experiment: doesn’t desire itself desire a tool with which to articulate and understand itself?

The Room Where I Was Born is a dark collection, building on the innocence and horror of the fairy tale tradition, the gothic, mythology, and even Biblical violence. At its heart, it feels like it is full of love, but a ruined or broken kind of love. Sight Map feels like a true departure from this in its embracing of the natural world, and more directly of a love that transcends: “Between two who love each other there is no room for doubt.” How do you see the idea of love working in these two collections?

I know for sure that I was thinking about love while writing Sight Map. The first three sections were written while in a long-distance relationship, me on the East Coast and him on the West. Since I had been the one to leave the Bay Area for a semester’s residence at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and then part of a summer at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, I was at first very conscious of feeling responsible for the ways in which the relationship started to unravel almost immediately, something that you can literally see in “To Be Two,” whose first two sections imperfectly “zip” together to make the third. In that final section, “the veil/is torn, but not sundered,” so there’s hope of repair—but as the reader discovers by the book’s last section, that hope doesn’t last. “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus” is the end of that relationship and the beginning of others.

But I was also thinking of other loves while writing Sight Map. And if one of my essential conflicts is that I am always ambivalent and awaiting a release from doubt, these two loves still seem to me like what I love most completely and what I love with least generosity: the natural world and the theology I was raised with. Given that, at least for me, there was a lot of slippage between the objects of devotion in any given poem, I came to think of the book as a love quadrangle:

poet beloved

God site/nature

I thought of the book this way very early on, and was very conscious that this was like the four corners of a page; I thought of these words as the frame for each page, and part of the journey of the book was negotiating the charged field created by these words. On the one hand, I know I began to visual it this way because of Brenda Hillman’s poem “A Geology” (from Cascadia); on the other, her pages are framed by four words which are always changing and which only sometimes repeat. I felt productively stuck within my own unchanging predicament, largely because the site itself often changed, doubt waxed and waned, and eventually the beloved went plural.

As for The Room Where I Was Born: I couldn’t say if I had love much in mind while writing it. From the distance of the at least seven years since I finished it, The Room… seems to begin as a book about the impotence of being a child—not being able to affect the course of one’s own fate, being subjected to adult desires and emotions—and the rage over that powerlessness. I see it then develop into a story about the person who emerges from abuse carrying its legacies of impotence, rage and a deep need for love. What follows is a lot of sex, betrayal, violence, shame, and power games. If there is love between men in that collection, it arrives at the end, hard-won, always too much jerry-rigged, tenuous and unsustainable. I see these lines from the last poem in the book, the fourth section of “Circa,” as perhaps more accurate of the whole: “a boy slipped the skin//of the literal until there was no house/could hold him, goodbye.” I was at that point in my life more trusting of and in love with art than with men.

Both collections work extensively with sequences and long poems, which I really admire. First and foremost, I find your work to be so expressive through—and innovative with—form. In the first section of Sight Map, the pieces arrive sort of fragmented or broken, but the last piece in the section, “To Be Two,” ends in an overlaying of some fragments, forging a “full” piece from pieces. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how form guides your work, or how you arrived at this essential use of form and sequence.

I do believe that each poet’s sense of form, like water, finds its own level—part of the difficult maturation of the poet is in learning to allow the mind to shut up so that the ear can hear the poems, which are often quite different in form than we want or expect them to be. By the end of Sight Map mine seemed to have settled somewhere between a two-page meditative lyric and the sequence, though lately I’ve found that my individual poems hit eight pages with increasing frequency. And while I’ve always had a hard time writing anything truly short, I haven’t really interrogated my recent tendency toward sequence and the longer poem. My gut response is an image. You know how, with some dogs, you’ve never seen them really run until you’ve given them an acre of field to run in? Some of my poems feel that way to me: they need range in which to be magnificent.

It wasn’t quite this way during the writing of Sight Map, which I began to write my way into with much hesitation and uncertainty. When I arrived at Bucknell, I was very conscious of trying to find a way out of the poems of my second book, Pleasure (which is finally coming out next year), which I had already largely finished. The first poems I wrote—“Emerson Susquehanna” and “To Be Two”—didn’t seem like finished poems to me; I put them aside for a month thinking they were too attenuated and sketchy, that I wasn’t hearing the poems correctly. It wasn’t until I sent them to a friend who said, “Hey, these are really good,” that I began to take seriously what I’d begun to do.

And though I was quite aware of the formal “gamesmanship” of certain poems, like “To Be Two” and “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus,” in which I set up procedural rules to help guide the poem’s composition (something I’d done in Pleasure as well), largely the forms were intuitive, their prosodies breath- and ear-driven. In “listening for the syllables,” I was definitely given permission by Charles Olson’s ideas about “projective verse”: “to step back here to this place of the elements and minims of language, is to engage speech where it is least careless—and least logical.” I love that he marries precision and intuition within the syllable, and it’s there that my own ear yokes Olson with Hopkins: the linkage of syllable to syllable with precision and intuition is my own version of inscape.

Along with nature and love, Sight Map embeds itself in the tradition of the journey, or the journey. You’ve titled sections with coordinates—objective signifiers of place—and one with the word “Pilgrim.” The pilgrim is one who travels for faith, for discovery, or out of an irresistible compulsion to meet God. The poems themselves have a reverence and respect for nature that borders on the religious as well. How is the notion of faith at work in this book for you, and what did you, as the poet, discover in your journey to write it?

After being raised in a devout family and having gone to Catholic school, I left the Catholic Church when I was a teenager, when I figured out I was gay. For a long time I didn’t think about God or theology at all, but when my first love died of AIDS, I found myself completely unprepared for his death. This is what Pleasure is largely about, facing his death by going back into theology as a gay man in the age of AIDS. Of course I was in mourning, which is not an especially good time to try and develop a relationship to theology: being matter seemed like a terrible curse, and God seemed malevolent and silent, and there was no sacrifice aside from human life. But I nonetheless started to get interested in Gnosticism, in the significant loopholes it provided the Christian upbringing I’d had.

Sight Map really began when I went to the well-stocked library at Bucknell to browse and find something to read: I’d arrived from California in a landscape very cold and full of snow, and the weather was a good excuse to start a reading project. It was in browsing the stacks of the library that I came across a complete edition of Emerson’s Journals, which inspired me to begin reading the Transcendentalists, who despite my education, I had really never read before. “Emerson Susquehanna” came from reading his journals during the blizzards of that winter and experiencing quite viscerally the difference between my childhood theology and that of Transcendentalism. Without Jesus, there was no suffering sacrificial incarnation, no mediator between man and God, no material Godhead—it was as if flesh had been released from the habit of pain. This was at the same time comforting and odd, fairly unbelievable. It was a release from what Emerson called “the God of rhetoric,” but it was also challenge: what now? “It isn’t//mastery I’m after,” I write in that poem, “It’s certain//other terms/than my own//I wait for.” The book’s journey starts that; all the poems unfold from that first poem.

Another piece that really moved me in Sight Map was “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus.” You’ve “braided” some lines, phrases, and images in this piece so that the storytelling has an echo that reminded me almost of the work of prayer, but it’s perhaps a more “contemporary” form of prayer that involves sex, the erotic, profanity, and God. I find this a recurring motif in your work, the pairing of what you might call the sacred alongside what many would consider the profane, yet you seem to have an equal reverence for both. Can you talk a bit about the interaction between the sacred and the profane in your work?

My favorite Gnostic text is “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.” There’s a receipt from 08/05/01 tucked in my copy of James M. Robinsons’s Nag Hammadi Library, and this impromptu bookmark opens the book to “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.” It reminds me that I’ve been reading this text for about eight years without exhausting it. Why? The text is likely spoken by Sophia, the feminine principle of divine wisdom, and her voice does this beautiful job of embracing dualism and then shattering it.

In its vatic breadth and its ecstatic yoking of opposing forces, “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” reminds me at times of Leaves of Grass, at other times of Rumi, and in doing so it also reminds me that the tradition of visionary poetics has profound ties across cultures, across centuries. “I was sent forth from the power,” she begins,” and I have come to those who reflect upon me,/and I have been found among those who seek after me.” First she establishes her source and power, and then her relationship to the reader: “Be on your guard!/Do not be ignorant of me.” And then she begins her litany:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin…
I am the silence incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the word whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

This text embodies my own sense of the relationship between sacred and profane: they often share the same name. Even with its origins in mystical theology, this is nonetheless an explicitly political position—as it was for Whitman—and in my case, this means it’s also pro-feminist and pro-queer. My becoming a poet at all was made possible by feminist and Gay Liberation writers like Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg, and I find the legacies of these writers to be the most obvious connection between The Room Where I Was Born and Sight Map: a refusal to be shamed, a deep pleasure in the erotic, and a desire to give language to a sexuality that has often been denied language.

Some reviewers have pointed out that the fourth section of Sight Map is the least theological, an observation that gave me pause. And though I agree that after “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus,” the poems are less obviously spiritual, I still find their insistence on the unity of experience to stem implicitly from spiritual belief. The argument of “Abandoned Palinode for the Twenty Suitors of June,” for instance, rests on the claim that sexual experience might lead to spiritual change: “you fucked them all…and you,/in the center of your life, finally changed,/both within your language and without.” Given my personal history and subject position, I can’t discount the transformative potential of sexuality, especially given its ability to make changes wordlessly, on an unlanguaged level of consciousness it takes work to get to, to bring words back from. To say it another way: why does our culture believe that sexual violence radically transforms a person, while a loving sexual experience doesn’t? I have always believed one of poetry’s jobs to be the demonstration of truths that counter our culture’s dependence on convention. Which is why I’ve been thinking about “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” for the past eight years and have just put the bookmark back in the book at this passage, which strikes me as a good definition of poetry:

For what is inside of is what is outside of you,
and the one who fashions you on the outside
is the one who shaped the inside of you.
And what you see outside of you,
you see inside of you;
it is visible and it is your garment.

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