Volume 5: DISAPPEARANCE

Friday, November 09, 2007

Francis Raven with Rae Armantrout

Francis Raven

An Interview with Rae Armantrout

How did you become a poet?

I think I became a poet partly at least because my mother read poetry to me when I was small. We had a sort of children’s encyclopedia set called Childcraft which included two volumes of poetry. There was Lewis Carroll, if course, but also Emily Dickinson—seen as nature poet. The sound of poetry got into me. Probably I equated it with love. That may not explain it, of course. I read many of those same poems to my son when he was small and they didn’t seem to make much impression on him. It’s also true that, when I was in college, poetry was better respected, less marginalized, hotter than it is now.

Who were your mentors or influences?

I suppose I’ll have to start with my mother, since she read to me. When I was in college, I took a course from Denise Levertov. In that class, I met Ron Silliman’s first wife, Rochelle Nameroff, and through her I met Ron. Ron had read more extensively and seriously than I had so he was both a peer and an influence. Then, of course, I was influenced by the writing of Williams, Dickinson, Creeley, Oppen, and Niedecker.

How do you individuate poems?

That’s a good question. Intuitively, I suppose. A poem generally condenses out of the notes I take over the course of a couple of weeks. What I’m seeing, hearing, reading, and watching over the course of that time goes into the notebook. Then I look over my notes and decide what goes with what, how things might relate. My poems generally have parts or section, as you know. The poetry is, more than anything else, in the way these sections relate to one another. That’s how the poems individuate.

What’s your working strategy? When do you write? How often? On a computer?

Whenever something strikes me I jot it down in the notebook I tend to carry around. I look over my notes and organize them, turn them into poems, in the morning. I’ll work on something, typically, for a couple of weeks. When I’ve finished it, I’ll give myself a week or so off to recoup, then start again. I don’t write on a computer but I do revise on one.

Are there any current trends in poetry you’re especially excited about?

It’s hard for me to isolate trends. I wish I could. The poets who interest me now are pretty diverse. A couple of young poets I’m interested in are Graham Foust and Catherine Wagner. What Foust is doing with the minimalist lyric blows me away. Wagner is outrageous and surprising in ways that appeal to me. I’m also interested by Andrew Joron’s work, partly because of the way he uses science. His work is spacey in both possible senses (or maybe there are three possible senses) of the term. Linh Dinh’s writing interests me because of the way he’s able to capture the strangeness of American culture from an immigrant viewpoint. But those four writers are certainly quite different. They don’t represent a trend. I should say, too, that many of my old friends, including Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, and Ron Siliman, continue to do very exciting work.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve finished a manuscript called Next Life and I’m working on a new batch of poems which may or may not end up being called Versed.

There are many scientific facts in your work. How do you go about doing this research? Is it systematic or do you just go through subjects you’re interested in?

Well, it certainly isn’t systematic. (You should see my office.) I’ve always been interested in science. My mother was a fundamentalist and I started reading Darwin when I was a teenager as a way to begin to get out from under that. Over the last decade, I’ve tended to read books and articles written for lay people about quantum mechanics, cosmology, and cognitive science. Of course, a lot of people do this. Books like Brian Greene’s and Stephen Hawking’s become best sellers. I try to somehow imagine the psychological and emotional ramifications or contexts of the information I’m (more or less) taking in. That’s what gets into the poems.

How do you use sub-lexicons?

I’m not sure what sub-lexicons are. Does that mean specialized vocabularies from different disciplines or the dialects of subaltern groups? In any case, I like to see what happens when I pick out phrases from one context and drop them into another.

How should science and poetry interact?

I find that thinking about contemporary science takes us to the border of what we imagine we know—which is a good place for poetry to be. Science generally ignores poetry, of course. But science, like all human communication, depends on metaphors. I sometimes think scientists would do well to study poetry to become more conscious of the way metaphors work.

How will language poetry be remembered?

I feel like everything I might say about language poetry is always already a cliché. I could say that language poetry either problematizes or frees up (both?) the relation of part to whole in a poem.

What category would you put your poetry in?

No thanks.

How has teaching changed your poetry?

I don’t know because I’ve pretty much always taught so there’s no control group of poems I wrote when I wasn’t a teacher. Sometimes I get exasperated by the absurdities of grading or writing comments on student poems. The poems “My Problem” (from Made to Seem) and “Form” (from Up to Speed) use that exasperation as part of their material. Teaching doesn’t enter directly into my writing very often though. If I were in a different line of work, I’d probably get better sub-lexicons from my job experience. I like the way Kit Robinson makes use of his work in the computer industry in his poems.

How much should a poet write?

I hate to speak for other people. I do find that the more we write, the more we repeat ourselves.

Do you have any advice for younger poets?

Oh dear. Eat your vegetables? Avoid avian flu? Read a lot. Give money to Small Press Distribution. Appreciate the friendships you form with other poets. They can last a lifetime.

What makes you laugh?

I’m like most people. I laugh at the Daly Show and South Park. I used to laugh at Monty Python. I whistle past the graveyard and laugh at my fears in (some of) my poems.

What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?

When I was 24, I think, I was a topless dancer for one strange afternoon in a bar for noncommissioned officers at a marine base. I got into an argument with a customer and got fired.
_____

Francis Raven,
http://ravensaesthetica.blogspot.com/.

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